Opportunity and disillusionment in Pigtown The new local plant looked like a win-win, but losses were heavy

November 07, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

In southwest Baltimore, PTP Industries' move into a plant on Washington Boulevard was hailed as a victory: an airy new home in the federal empowerment zone for a local company, a tenant for the old Montgomery Ward complex whose sorry condition was a symbol of the decaying neighborhood, and 250 of the new, low-skill jobs that local residents desperately need.

"Our neighborhood has double-digit unemployment," says Arnold Sherman, a Pigtown resident who helped recruit workers for PTP. "I believed PTP was going to be an answer to the unemployed, to some of the prostitution, to many problems."

Eighteen months after PTP opened operations on Washington Boulevard, such optimism has evaporated in the communities of southwest Baltimore.

This discontent exists even though PTP is the second-biggest creator of new jobs in the empowerment zone, having added 300 to date.

Consider Marilyn Edwards, one of scores of Baltimore residents who held jobs at the new plant. Some have quit in disgust at working conditions -- or been fired for absenteeism, for substance abuse or, as Edwards says happened to her, for challenging management.

And while the company continues to employ about 200 empowerment zone residents out of a 550-person work force, the high turnover among local employees has pushed PTP increasingly to fill positions with foreign refugees, thankful for work at any wage.

Many of these are Vietnamese refugees such as Thi Nguyen, imported through Catholic Charities' Montgomery County office to a neighborhood where as many as one in six people is unemployed.

"Baltimore is really a tough city for employers," says Hank Albarelli, a Pigtown developer and businessman.

"It's unfortunate, but there is not a big population to draw from here in terms of people willing and able to work entry-level jobs."

Some community leaders dispute that. But in dozens of interviews, residents, PTP workers and executives agree that the company's rosy job figures disguise a complicated story full of cautions for those who believe business can be harnessed to create social change.

The PTP story illuminates two unpleasant truths:

Despite the federal government's efforts to make the federal empowerment zone a controlled laboratory, other government programs can undercut employment of inner-city residents there.

And despite their strong willingness to work, many inner-city residents are not able to match employers' expectations for even the simple assembly-line work that the packaging firm offers.

PTP's early efforts to hire from the inner city have embittered company executives, too. The firm is now in a legal fight with a union that has sought -- so far unsuccessfully -- to organize its workers.

Facing criticism, PTP officials are saying what many businesses are often too polite to speak out loud: Reliable help is so hard to find in the inner city that tax credits have little effect on their employment decisions.

Says Vice President Jeff Hays: "No employer is going to hire people who aren't performing well, aren't coming to work on time, or are abusing drugs -- just to get a tax credit."

'Needed the work'

Marilyn Edwards lives in West Baltimore, on South Gilmor Street. She says she was collecting unemployment benefits when PTP hired her to a $5-per-hour assembly-line job in fall 1994. That same fall, PTP and an air-freshener maker signed an agreement with the Maryland Economic Development Corp. to occupy the Ward complex until the year 2009.

"I didn't know much about the company, but I knew I needed the work," Edwards says. "They said they desperately needed people, and it was close to home."

Before the company's move, Edwards worked in PTP's cramped plant on Annapolis Road. The company had been looking to combine the operations from that plant and its building on Wells Street. One option was to move to a larger plant in Virginia.

But Maryland made an offer PTP liked. MEDCO bought the Montgomery Ward property for $5 million; the state and city helped back the loans that PTP would need to renovate the facility.

Staying made sense. PTP, founded in the city 14 years ago, was able to remain in southern Baltimore and keep the 250 employees it already had. The packaging firm promised to add 250 new jobs as it expanded operations in a 330,000-square-foot space, with warehouse storage, administrative offices, an airy room where machines mold plastic into various shapes and assembly lines where workers pack flashlights, batteries and computer disks.

"The problem the company had was it was growing so rapidly," says Hays. "This space was perfect for us."

As they prepared for the April 1995 opening, company executives knew that PTP was in the empowerment zone, making the firm eligible for up to $3,000 in tax credits for every zone resident it employed for 90 working days. But attracting local workers to the new $5-per-hour jobs proved difficult.

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