How the County's Biggest Plant Died


March 06, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

To paraphrase the familiar observation of Tolstoy in "Anna Karenina," the stories of all happy economic developments are alike, but the tales of unhappy developments are unhappy in their own ways.

The closing of the Douglas & Lomason Co. auto parts factory scheduled for this summer is a different story, bringing to an end the short life of what was Harford County's largest

manufacturing employer.

That fact in itself is revealing: Among the marquee-name corporations located in Harford County, none provided as many industrial jobs as a little-known specialty plant run by a relatively small Michigan company since 1988.

And even that factory employment level was based on a `D tenuous, short-term contract.

About 400 people worked at that Havre de Grace plant a year ago, as many as 600 in 1989, turning out seats for Chrysler Corp. autos assembled about 15 miles to the north, in Newark, Del.

Company officials said a year ago that the 170,000-square-foot plant was positioned to produce other auto components, such as moldings and rubber stripping, ornaments and window trim.

It could even manufacture refrigerated truck bodies or packaging and conveyor systems.

"We are capable of bringing here work other than seat assembly. That way we can avoid layoffs," explained none other than plant manager W. Keith Lomason II, great-grandson of the company's co-founder.

His assurances came as it was announced that the Chrysler plant would be terminating the Douglas & Lomason contract, shifting production lines to different models and switching to a new supplier of those auto seats.

That new supplier is a plant set up by Johnson Controls Inc. in Cecil County, using two vacant buildings in a North East industrial park. . . .

Plus $150,000 in local and federal grants for job training and plant development. . . .

Plus $175,000 in state loans to build offices and $8,000 in Cecil County tax rebates.

That was after Johnson Controls had secured the new Chrysler seat contract. Apparently, Douglas & Lomason could not successfully bid for the new seats contract, even with an established plant, experienced workers and supply systems already in place.

That says a lot about the value of "job creation" incentives ladled out by all levels of government. The number of jobs that will be created in North East? No more than 80 positions when the production is in full swing.

Without the promise of generous government incentives in Cecil, the Milwaukee-based conglomerate probably could not have won the Chrysler contract. Maryland development officials, who boasted of landing the plant for Cecil, had to outbid three other states in financial commitments.

Such efforts are not unique to Cecil.

Harford and other counties do the same thing to hook a new employer. Douglas & Lomason got a $5 million low-interest loan, to remodel the 20-year-old plant, on bonds issued by Harford when it located here.

This wasn't even a case of stealing an existing employer from another Maryland county, since Johnson already had the contract and was looking for a nearby place to land.

But the effect was the same. Cecil's gain was Harford's loss, however indirect the causal relationship.

Douglas & Lomason had planned to limp by for awhile, looking for alternative contracts, as Chrysler extended its changeover deadline for its A-body cars and the Havre de Grace plant supplied cut foam to the new Cecil seat-builders.

Finally, last month, the Harford plant laid off 86 workers and told the remaining 180 employees that it would completely shut down the first of July.

Three Douglas & Lomason plants in other states will also close. Price concession pressures from automakers on these component suppliers have been relentless over the past few years, even as car sales have climbed.

And the United Auto Workers union has been pressing automakers to reduce reliance on outside suppliers such as Douglas & Lomason and to manufacture more components in-house instead.

There may still be hope for the plant, given the recent history of industrial turnaround situations in Harford.

The bankrupt Chesapeake Beverage plant in Havre de Grace was revived by Knudsen & Sons to bottle fruit juices last year.

The vacant Gleneagles Inc. rainwear factory got a new lease on life when the Bel Air plant and the brand name were acquired by the J. Schoeneman textiles firm, which is again producing outerwear.

And American Cyanamid had slated its aluminum aircraft material plant for permanent shutdown in 1992, but Alcore Inc. bought the business and relocated the production to Belcamp.

In all these cases, however, employment is lower than it was under the previous employers, just as Johnson Controls employs fewer people than the Havre de Grace plant.

It's symptomatic of the times: Smaller employment and more automation equals more productivity.

Some workers at the auto seat factory may be able to get jobs at the expanding Constar plastics facility in the same industrial park.

We hope that is a story that is the same, which is to say, happy.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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