Officials promise aid for W. Md. Task force meets at Kelly-Springfield, which is leaving region

October 17, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND -- Vowing to turn Western Maryland's latest adversity into opportunity, state and federal leaders gathered here yesterday to promise help for the struggling mountainous region as one of its longtime economic bulwarks, the Kelly-Springfield Tire Co., prepares to depart.

The 42-member task force met at Kelly's headquarters to begin mapping out a plan for replacing the 400 mostly white-collar jobs that will be lost locally when the company closes its offices and warehouse next year.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and other elected officials offered many words of encouragement, though little concrete aid.

Some local leaders said they had hoped to hear news of an upscale industry moving into Allegany County, but it was not to be.

"You don't pull things out of a pocket," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said, as she and several other politicians departed the meeting early.

Before leaving, she predicted that "Team Maryland," as she dubbed the task force, would help the region recover, just as the same group of leaders had corraled government aid after flooding devastated the area two years ago.

Glendening did announce $50,000 yesterday to help the task force, and noted that he had accelerated a $500,000 state grant to supply water to the drought-stricken Allegany community of Lonaconing.

"We've got to take this short-term difficulty and turn it into something successful," he said.

Glendening and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. organized the task force last week, after Kelly's parent company, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., announced Oct. 5 that it plans to relocate the Cumberland offices to Akron, Ohio.

Kelly's move was no surprise to residents, who said a shutdown had been rumored for years. "The Kelly," as it is known locally, has been a major economic player in the county since 1921, when the Ohio-based company opened its second tire manufacturing plant here.

But the tire factory closed in 1987, putting 1,000 people out of work. Only through the intervention of then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer did the company agree to keep its offices and warehouse in Cumberland.

"We saw this coming," said Bernie Loar, chairman of the Allegany County commissioners, who lost his longtime Kelly job 2 1/2 years ago as the company began reducing its remaining work force.

Goodyear has owned Kelly-Springfield since 1935 but maintained it as a separate operation until now. Company officials say they need to consolidate, while still marketing tires under the Kelly brand.

"The world is changing," said Lee Fiedler, Kelly's president. "We have to change with it."

It is unclear how many people will be laid off in the move, expected to be made in phases over the next year. Some will decide to retire, while others will be offered transfers, said company spokesman Gerald Hess.

While the closure will carve a $34 million hole in the region's economy -- $15 to $20 million in payrolls and $14 million in purchases -- many said yesterday that Western Maryland is stronger than it has been since the county lost the Kelly tire factory and two other major manufacturing plants in the 1980s.

Schaefer, named by Glendening to the task force, noted that two new prisons and the newly opened conference hotel at Rocky Gap State Park have brought needed jobs to the region.

Allegany has more jobs today than before the tire factory closed, although many are in lesser-paying businesses like telemarketing and tourism.

And the county's 8.5 percent unemployment rate is far above the state and national averages.

"We can fill up just about every building we have with telemarketing companies, but they only pay about $6 an hour," said Loar, "and it's hard to live on that."

He said he has been running a downtown restaurant and teaching since losing his Kelly job.

Taylor, who represents Western Maryland, used the occasion to tout his economic development plan -- offering tax credits and long-term loans to develop roads, utilities and other local services needed to lure jobs to the state's economically distressed areas, which include Baltimore and the Eastern Shore.

As the task force hashed out its plans, residents in downtown Cumberland said they would miss "the Kelly," but would somehow carry on.

"It's a shame, but it was time," said Roger Lantz, 50, who has been helping to run his family's bake shop since losing his tire factory job 11 years ago. "You've got to pick the pieces up."

"We're going to bounce back," said Lantz's wife, Elizabeth.

Pub Date: 10/17/98

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