Garrett loses 600 jobs as glasses plant closes Area left without manufacturing base

April 04, 1997|By PETER JENSEN | PETER JENSEN,SUN STAFF

MOUNTAIN LAKE PARK -- In a remote, rural county where jobs are prized like rich veins of coal extricated from mountains of rock, this afternoon brings as painful an event as one can imagine.

Without fanfare, day shift workers at the sprawling Bausch & Lomb Inc. manufacturing plant east of Oakland will grind and polish their last Ray-Ban sunglass lense. A 26-year-old facility that employed 600 last year will go silent.

For 30,000 Garrett County residents who have known this day would come since company officials announced the closing 15 months ago, reality hits home. Like grieving widows, they have run the gamut of emotions from shock, anger and denial to a kind of uneasy acceptance of their fate.

"You can worry about the future, but you'd drive yourself crazy," said Jayne Lockie, 36, a 10-year plant employee married to a 16-year plant veteran. "Nothing much is a sure thing anymore."

The plant will close not with a bang but a kind of whimper. Early retirements, voluntary departures and the incentive of a generous severance package had already cut the payroll in half. When the second and third shifts were dismissed March 27, the number dwindled to about 200.

Now, all that will remain is a skeleton crew to ship valuable equipment to the company's San Antonio plant. By the end of next month, hardly anything will be left in a building that just five years ago provided jobs to nearly 1,200 people, or nearly one in 12 Garrett County workers.

"Bausch & Lomb was a pillar of our community," said Oakland Mayor Asa M. McCain Jr., a retired elementary school principal. "This leaves a huge void."

It wasn't just the number of jobs but the good salary and full benefits the Rochester, N.Y.-based company offered its employees. It was not uncommon for two or three members of a family to work there. Job turnover was light.

Good jobs, good wages

The average Bausch pay was $9.83 per hour and, with overtime, workers often took home $500 per week. Families with two Bausch workers could earn twice the $25,000 annual income that households in Garrett average.

As of January, the county's unemployment rate was 13.3 percent, more than twice Maryland's 4.8 percent average.

"It was a hard job to get because most everyone stays," said Virginia Herron, 60, a former machine operator at the plant. "We'll never find anything else around here with that kind of pay and benefits."

County officials have been unable to precisely track the fate of former Bausch workers, but speculate that no more than 10 percent have found jobs. As of this week, 245 are enrolled in job training. Another 76 have graduated.

Many in training programs were attracted as much by the opportunity to extend unemployment benefits as learning new skills. Staying in a classroom will stretch the standard six months of benefits -- as much as $250 per week -- for another 18 months.

As a result, the economic blow to Garrett has been muted -- for now. But county officials fear that unless a major new employer is found for the plant, conditions will worsen significantly.

"In general, people in Garrett County are pretty optimistic, but there is a feeling of loss," said John G. Brasky, a county commissioner. "It's unfortunate that we've found nothing to replace these jobs."

In Oakland, about a quarter of the stores in the three-block downtown retail district are vacant. Only a few businesses departed this year, but the Bausch closing has put a damper on efforts to bring new shops, town officials said.

With so many newly unemployed, county leaders are trying to determine how much they stand to lose in tax collections. Oakland faces a more immediate problem -- how to cover **TC $200,000 debt the town carries for a water treatment plant and reservoir built specifically to attract Bausch.

Looking at the future

"If we just saw an industry wanting to come, the optimism would overshadow what's happening," said Amy Rudy, co-owner of Rudy's Clothing in Oakland. "Right now, people are looking at the future and don't see the economy doing better."

State officials marketing the Bausch facility said they have nearly closed a deal to sell the plant on three occasions. A Chicago-based manufacturer of smoke detectors, a furniture maker and a plastics assembler came close, but eventually decided to pass.

In one case, the company found a facility that better suited its needs on the Eastern Shore. In another, the opportunity for cheaper labor in Mexico beckoned. The third simply decided it wasn't the right time to expand, said Mary Burkholder of the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

"This is a very high priority," said Burkholder, director of the Office of Business Development. "But this is an unpredictable business. Six hundred is a very large number of jobs."

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