Rocket-produced economic boom

September 11, 1994|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Writer

CUMBERLAND -- Three . . . Two . . . One . . . As the countdown hits zero, an electrical pulse flashes to the rocket motor, and it comes to life with a blaze of fiery exhaust and a roar that rumbles through the surrounding mountains.

But this particular rocket is not beginning a flight into space. It's not going anywhere. It's lying sideways, strapped to a concrete base at the federal government's Allegany Ballistics Laboratory, a sprawling rocket fuel development complex operated by Hercules Inc. about eight miles outside of Cumberland on the West Virginia side of the Potomac River.

While the rocket's roar can't be heard by shoppers strolling along the tree-lined Baltimore Street mall, the economic impact of the defense installation is being felt by practically every business in town and the surrounding area.

Hercules is one of the biggest employers in this part of Maryland, and if everything goes as planned, it will provide a big boost to Allegany County's long-struggling economy.

The company has announced plans to combine its rocket fuel production operations at McGregor, Texas, near Waco, with its Rocket Center, W. Va., site and bring up to 300 jobs -- some paying in the range of $50,000 to $70,000 a year -- to the region.

It's one of those rare times when recent consolidation within the defense industry is benefiting, not hurting, Maryland.

Three hundred new jobs will have a much greater impact on this part of the state than it would on Baltimore, said David W. Edgerley, director of the Allegany County Department of Economic Development.

"If we get 300 new jobs, it would equate to 1 percent of the work force -- that's a 1 percent drop in the unemployment rate," said Mr. Edgerley. "That's very significant. It means more stability to the area."

Stability is what this region desperately needs.

Cumberland suffered greatly during the 1980s, when three of its giant industrial employers -- Celanese Corp, PPG Industries and Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. -- closed. Along with the coal-hauling railroads, these were the companies that put Cumberland on the map.

During their heyday, these companies employed tens of thousands of workers. Celanese, alone, once had 17,000 workers.

Cumberland is still struggling to recover from the blows. Its unemployment rate, 9.4 percent in July, was nearly 80 percent above the state average. That's been the pattern for at least the past eight years.

While neighboring Washington County posted a 7.3 percent gain in population during the 1980s, Allegany County lost nearly 7 percent of its citizens, as its population fell to 74,946 in 1990, down from 80,548 in 1980.

Area educators and business people attribute the decline to the lack of employment opportunities for high school and college graduates.

"There no question about it," said Mr. Edgerley, "we have taken some big hits in the past. We've been hurt bad, but we're coming back."

Despite its difficult times, Cumberland wears its adversity well. There is only a sprinkling of closed shops along the tree-lined downtown shopping mall. The remaining stores, mostly specialty shops, seem to be holding their own, if not prospering.

While the county has chalked up some gains in recent years in attracting new industry, it is still a place where 450 people line up to apply for a single teaching position, said Robert E. Terrill, the county school superintendent.

The job history of 59-year-old Heinrich Pauli reads like a case study of just what's happened to the local economy.

Starting out at Celanese, he worked there for 22 years before it closed and he lost his job. He joined Cumberland Steel Co. in 1983, but it closed four years later. His next job was with Allegany Ballistics Lab, or ABL as people refer to the rocket fuel-making complex.

Mr. Pauli didn't wait to be laid off when the federal defense budget began to shrink and ABL started to reduce its work force. He used his life savings and some borrowed money to go into business for himself. He opened One Stop Liquor in Bel Air Plaza.

It was a move that he felt offered greater security.

"At my age it was hard to find another job. People wouldn't want to hire me because of the age factor," he said as he sold a six-pack of beer to a customer.

"The Lord knows we need more jobs," said Mary Lantz, 76, owner for 40 years of the M&M Bake Shop in downtown Cumberland, as she darted back and forth behind the counter filling an order for three dozen doughnuts for a local nursing home. "Everybody, especially the young people, are leaving this area because there is nothing to do."

Brian Valentine is one of those that left.

Mr. Valentine, who currently works for MacFarlane Construction Ltd. in Cockeysville, views the move with mixed emotions.

"It's a great place to live," the 31-year-old construction worker said of Cumberland, where he grew up and his parents still reside. "It's a slower pace. It's more relaxed. The people are friendly, and there's no hustle and bustle of the big city.

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