When a plant closes Shock: Garrett County is reeling from the Jan. 10 announcement that Bausch & Lomb Inc. is closing its plant, leaving residents worried and angry

January 21, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

OAKLAND -- At St. Peter's Church, a tiny Gothic gem tucked on a side street amid wood-frame houses in the mountains of this Western Maryland hamlet, the Rev. Richard Spencer studied the pain on the faces of his parishioners. "The mountains," he began, quoting the Psalms, "shall yield peace for all people, and the hills, justice."

But peace and justice seem elusive now, Father Spencer acknowledged in a Sunday morning homily that took on the tones of an eloquent eulogy. Just five days before, Bausch & Lomb Inc., Garrett County's biggest private employer, had stunned the mountain people when it announced it would be closing its sprawling sunglass lens plant, eliminating 600 jobs in phases as it shifts operations to San Antonio this year.

Ever since, this slice of Appalachia in the northwest corner of Maryland has been mourning a loss many liken to the death of loved one or a painful divorce. For a quarter century, the plant provided livelihoods for entire families, anchored the local economy and served as the center of social life where many co-workers met their future spouses and 42 couples now work.

Throughout this county seat of 1,700 last week, the talk focused on life after "B&L," as the plant is affectionately known. In churches, at the little brick City Hall, on street corners, in restaurants and bars, in homes for miles around, people wondered whether Oakland would ever recover.

Men and women sobbed uncontrollably and embraced. A few suggested that Oakland may become a ghost town. Demand even for minimum-wage jobs already far outstrips openings. And merchants already wonder how they will survive the loss of a plant with an $18 million annual payroll.

Across a narrow street from the rushing waters of the Potomac, Deborah Ann Ford sat in her immaculate living room with her two daughters and shuddered as she contemplated life without work for the first time since her teen-age years. Since she started at B&L right out of high school 24 years ago, the plant has become one of the few constants in a life that intimately acquainted her with the pain of goodbyes that came too soon. She lost her mother to cancer, and the two husbands she met at B&L, her first to to a gun accident, her second, to divorce.

"But the plant's closing," said Ms. Ford, "has been as difficult as anything I've ever faced. I would view it as akin to a death, having experienced that loss.

"It's a rugged people, mountain people. But I tell you, what saddens me most is when I look at people my age and I see how much they've aged in the last week. You can see the anger and the fear. There's just no place left to look for work here," Ms. Ford, 40, added.

Her friend and co-worker, Eleanora Mayle, who started working at the plant just months after it opened, recalled the announcement she thought would never come.

"Everybody I know was just in a state of shock," said Mrs. Mayle, a 54-year-old widow who lives in a small apartment in downtown Oakland. "They're not only taking jobs, they're taking our lives, and they're just splitting our family up, our family at the plant."

At St. Peter's, Father Spencer, perhaps as much as anyone in this area, knows the insidious nature of such fears. He has been besieged by people seeking guidance. By the elderly who worry about being left alone because they know children leave a town devoid of opportunity. By the grocers, the restaurateurs, the salesmen, the downtown merchants who cater to B&L workers and wonder if local businesses will survive. And by the families headed by plant workers forced to seek new jobs for the first time in decades.

"I'm really worried about the mental health, the spiritual health of our people," Father Spencer said.

But the town must confront the loss head-on and avoid the temptation to minimize its magnitude, he said.

"When these problems are left alone and ignored and you put your head in the sand, they're going to fester, and you're going to have chronic issues surface later," Father Spencer said. "To be able to name it and identify it and talk about it is essential."

Nurture strength of spirit, he tells his flock, care for one another to find peace, to ward off despair, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, depression, to keep families from falling apart, to keep kids from going hungry, to keep faith from slipping away.

His Sunday morning sermon is about a little town and life's big journeys -- from despair to hope, death to resurrection, hard times to healing grace. Now, especially now, he said, the mountain people must look to one another and to God to sustain them.

Boomtown economy

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