Body blow to Garrett County Big job loss: Bausch & Lomb departure staggers already poor community.

January 13, 1996

IT WAS A STUNNING BLOW to folks in Garrett County, Maryland's western-most subdivision. Bausch & Lomb, the area's largest employer, announced it was shutting its 25-year-old plant in Oakland by the end of the year. That means a loss of 600 good-paying jobs in a town of only 1,700 residents. The company's contribution to the local economy nearly equals the entire county budget.

Oakland's mayor said he was in "disbelief." There was no advance warning, no time for a counter-offer. Bausch and Lomb is struggling. Its CEO was forced out; an interim boss ordered a big restructuring. Instead of manufacturing sunglasses piecemeal -- the lenses in Oakland, the frames in Rochester, N.Y., the assembly in San Antonio -- the company is consolidating U.S. operations in Texas.

That may be a wise corporate decision, but for Garrett County it is devastating. This rural subdivision is the second poorest in the state (after Somerset County) and the fourth smallest in population (28,000). It is heavily dependent upon the unpredictable skiing industry. Big snowfalls this winter have made it a banner skiing season. But next winter may be a bust.

Bausch & Lomb gave the county 600 dependable jobs, with good pay. That will be hard to replace. Finding a tenant for the company's 180,00-square-foot plant in rural Appalachia will require enormous salesmanship.

It will also take some of the tools Gov. Parris Glendening is seeking from the General Assembly. Job-linked tax credits would give a company a big reason to move into the vacant plant -- perhaps as much as $600,000 in tax breaks. Tax incentives for companies locating in areas with high unemployment would also make the Oakland site more appealing.

The job loss underlines the importance of focusing more attention on the state's tourism industry. Western Maryland, in particular, holds vast potential. A commitment from state leaders to zero in on that part of the state could yield some benefits rather quickly.

Still, shop owners and banks in Oakland are in for a rough year or two. But with determination and a strong financial boost from the state to find a new employer, Garrett County should come through this crisis. Western Marylanders are hardy folks, with a "can do " attitude. They will need it in the months aheads.

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