Hundreds of jobs come calling Telemarketing firm set to open a center in Hagerstown

August 08, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

A North Carolina telemarketing firm will open a calling center in Hagerstown that will add up to 350 jobs, state and local officials will disclose today, in an announcement expected to kick off a series of locations of telemarketing centers in Western Maryland.

Somar Marketing Systems will open the center sometime between November and January, said officials of Bell Atlantic Corp., a Somar customer that helped persuade the firm to choose a Maryland location over those in several other states.

Somar will move into a building that is partly occupied by Bell Atlantic, taking over space that the phone company vacated last year.

But Bell Atlantic-Maryland President Daniel J. Whelan declined to say whether his firm played a major role in the talks because it plans to contract with Somar for telemarketing to support Bell Atlantic's pending expansion into the long-distance telephone business, allowed for the first time by this year's new federal telecommunications law.

"We have used them in the past for outward calling and in some cases direct mail," Whelan said. "I would look to the [long-distance] industry as a whole, and the industry as a whole uses a fair amount of telemarketing activity."

He said Bell Atlantic-Maryland has not committed any major piece of long-distance-related selling business to Somar, and that the local center is expected to have clients other than Bell Atlantic.

The Somar move is the latest in a series of announcements of employers setting up shop in Western Maryland. The biggest was Staples Inc.'s announcement in April that it would open a 700-job distribution center in Hagerstown. House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., an Allegany County Democrat, said more such moves are in the works.

"This is hopefully the first of three facilities that would add up to 1,000 jobs, which is fantastic," Taylor said. "These are the kinds of facilities that by and large can be put anywhere. You can put them on the moon. But we have been working with Bell Atlantic to convince them Western Maryland needs help and they are helping."

Taylor said all three potential facilities involve telecommunications and all three involve Bell Atlantic in some way. He said he knows the names of the companies involved in the discussions but cannot disclose them at this stage of negotiations.

Whelan confirmed that "there are other discussions under way with companies like Somar."

Western Maryland has long suffered from unemployment rates higher than the state average, the result of an economy that depended more heavily on manufacturing than the Baltimore-Washington area and was hit hard by a series of plant closings. The most recent announcement was last winter, when Bausch & Lomb Inc. said it would shut a sunglass lens plant in Oakland, eliminating 600 jobs.

But the jobless rate for Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties has declined sharply, partly in the face of fierce efforts in Annapolis to pour money for infrastructure improvements, prisons and tourism development into the region.

"What we're doing today is a whole lot safer than depending on one humongous company to keep our economy going," Taylor said. "Let's face it, the smokestack economy for the foreseeable future in the U.S. is gone. We're developing a smarter strategy to match the new economy."

In June, Western Maryland joblessness stood at 6.7 percent, down from 8.6 percent a year ago, said Pat Arnold, director of labor market analysis for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

"You're going to have to stop calling it 'economically troubled Western Maryland,' " another state official said.

Arnold expects Western Maryland's jobless rate to move higher later this year as the Bausch & Lomb layoffs become effective, but said its impact is hard to predict because some workers will find jobs quickly and others will either leave the state or retire.

The center is expected to employ 200 to 250 when it opens but will grow quickly, state, Washington County and Bell Atlantic officials said.

Public incentive payments do not appear to have been a key reason why Somar is coming here rather than to West Virginia, Virginia or Pennsylvania.

Taylor said the state is contributing only modest incentives, mostly money to help Somar offset employee training costs. Washington County administrator Rod Shoop said there is no county money in the package.

Pub Date: 8/08/96

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