When Lori Brennan picked up the phone at Chesapeake Machine Co. on Monday night and the person on the line claimed to be calling from the White House, she puzzled over what he could possibly want to order at the company, which makes heavy steel parts and industrial equipment.
"I thought they wanted us to start a job because we do so much government work," said Brennan, an administrative assistant.
But the call was the opening act in a days-long planning frenzy for President Barack Obama's tour of the East Baltimore manufacturing facility Friday, when company employees listened to him unveil a $33 billion jobs tax credit plan to the nation.
"I'm trying to take a few deep breaths," said Terry Sims, the company owner, a few hours after the visit. "It's been an amazing week since we got the first call."
Sims said he heard that the Obama administration had considered two other Baltimore-area businesses, but ultimately chose Chesapeake Machine to serve as the backdrop for the president's announcement. The White House press office didn't respond to an inquiry about how the company was chosen.
While about two dozen employees watched with cameras in hand, Sims and his operations manager gave Obama a tour of the 32,000-square-foot facility on Janney Street in Highlandtown. The company builds custom industrial equipment, such as machinery for the steel mill at Sparrows Point, and recently landed a customer in the solar energy industry, company officials said.
On the tour, the president wore blue protective glasses and greeted workers with "Hey, guys," or "What's going on, guys."
Obama then spoke to a crowd of employees and city, state and federal representatives, including City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, Gov. Martin O'Malley, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Reps. Elijah E Cummings and John Sarbanes, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Obama said his job-creation ideas were the most cost-effective way to stimulate hiring.
"Now's the perfect time for this kind of incentive because the economy is growing but businesses are still hesitant to start hiring again," Obama said.
Despite laying off four workers last year, Chesapeake Machine, which relies increasingly on defense contracting projects, is looking to hire a machinist. And Obama's proposal to stimulate job growth by giving employers a $5,000 payroll tax credit for each new employee they hire couldn't come at a better time for Chesapeake Machine.
"I think that [credit] would help any small business who was on the fence about hiring someone," said Sims. "We really hope to hire four or five people this year. That tax credit would help. It's not going to be the deciding factor, but it'll help."
Chesapeake Machine is a blue-collar workplace set in an industrial section of East Baltimore. The workers operate large steel machines that can fabricate pieces as small as screws or as large as industrial-strength steel containers.
The company has nearly 40 employees, and about half have worked there for a decade or more, according to Donna Smith, the company's officer manager. It's a family business with workers who, in many cases, have relatives also working there, she said.
"This is blue-collar," said Smith, sitting in the company's front office. Smith is the mother of Lori Brennan, who picked up the first White House call. "There are probably three or four people who have college degrees. The rest are high school graduates."
Joseph Sedlak, the company's operations manager, said that several years ago, Chesapeake Machine was getting more work from commercial businesses. But as that market dried up, the company turned to seeking more work from the government, such as the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers. It also handles custom manufacturing projects as a subcontractor for the defense industry.
"We've been forced to follow where the money is," Sedlak said. About two-thirds of the company's revenue now comes from government-related work. "Our customer base has completely changed. We've gone from building widgets and brackets to projects for defense."
Recently, the company started looking to hire a machinist. Just a few years ago, when the economy was better, there weren't any machinists available, and Chesapeake Machine started its own apprenticeship program.
"Before, to get someone to apply for a machinist position was unheard of," Sedlak said. "It's a dying trade. People didn't want to get into it."
Now, Sedlak has a stack of 60 resumes on his desk, and they keep coming in nearly every day.
Baltimore Sun reporter Paul West contributed to this article.
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