Trailer maker to close plant in Hancock

Washington Co. factory employs 289 people

February 03, 2005|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

A travel trailer manufacturer that employs nearly 300 people in Hancock announced yesterday that it will close the plant - the third large employer reportedly shutting down in a Western Maryland county that until recently had been one of the hotter economic development areas in the state.

Fleetwood Travel Trailers Enterprises Inc., one of Washington County's largest employers, said it would close the doors of the factory by April 1 and lay off 289 workers.

The Hancock facility and the others indicating they would close in the past month counter some of the economic progress of the region. With rising home prices, new retail and a new satellite campus of the University of Maryland, the area has added jobs and fared better than other parts of the historically rural and industrial western side of the state.

"They say bad things come in threes, and hopefully this is our third, and we're done for the year," said Tim Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

Fleetwood has been in operation since 1969 and makes "fifth wheels," a type of recreational vehicle towed by pickup trucks, he said. The company makes a similar product line at a nearby facility in Williamsport. Some of the workers might be relocated there or to another facility in Pennsylvania operated by the Riverside, Calif.-based company.

Before the recent spate of closing announcements, the county unemployment rate was 3.3 percent - below the statewide average of about 4 percent.

Williamsport plant

Last month, union officials told the county that GST AutoLeather Inc., based in Hagerstown, would lay off workers at its retanning division near Williamsport within six months as it moves work to Mexico. However, the company has not officially notified county officials that it would close or lay off its 160 workers.

Phoenix Color Corp. is closing a book-text printing plant north of Hagerstown that employs 180 people. Some of those workers are expected to be transferred to other company facilities.

State officials plan to help all the laid-off workers understand their unemployment benefits, retraining opportunities and other available services, said Linda Sherman, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

The county has seen some companies move in and expand recently - some with starting salaries close to those of the closing facilities but likely below what some long-time workers were earning. Troxell said plant and warehouse jobs are expected to pay from $11.50 to $13 to start.

Troxell said the county announced creation of 1,600 jobs in 2004. Tractor Supply Co. and FedEx Ground are constructing distribution centers that expect to employ 180 and 400, respectively. Home Depot Inc. has added 125 jobs, and Netconn Solutions, a systems integration and consulting company, is adding 40 workers.

Growing pains

John Hopkins, associate director for applied economics at RESI, the research and consulting arm of Towson University, said the county is experiencing growing pains.

"They are seeing a lot of job growth, but they're also seeing some job losses," Hopkins said. "That region is growing as it starts to become a bedroom community for the Washington area, but also the economy is expanding out there, providing its own job growth. ... It has an advantage for distribution and logistics and those types of jobs that move goods around, because you're right on the I-70 corridor, you have I-81 there."

He said the Fleetwood factory closing would be significant, but said he expects the jobs to be replaced.

Fleetwood has been reporting declining sales of trailers, although the company's manufactured-home division was on an upswing.

In the third quarter, which ended Jan. 23, revenue in general declined 5 percent to about $565 million, the company reported. That compares with $598 million in the comparable quarter last year.

Fleetwood indicated in that report, issued Jan. 27, that it had idled some of its RV plants for a week so it could work down its inventory.

Shares of the company closed at $8.93 yesterday on the New York Stock Exchange, down 21 cents.

Kathy Munson, director of investor relations, said the company operated three trailer plants in close proximity and was consolidating. The Williamsport plant and one in Somerset, Pa., could be expanded if the trailer business picks up for the company, Munson said.

"The housing business is coming out of a long, long slump, and we think we're on the road to improvement," she said. "The RV business has been very strong in the last year, but our sales have been disappointing. ... It's less expensive to run two plants than three."

Sun staff writer Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.

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