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West Point, state agencies working to overcome plant closing

WEST POINT — The West Point area was dealt a major economic blow with the announcement of the closing of the Sara Lee Foods plant, Clay County’s largest employer. Slated for March 30, the shutdown takes away 1,220 permanent jobs and shutters a plant that’s been part of the community since the early 1900s when the Bryan family opened a small meat market that led to a processing plant in 1936.

While local and state leaders lament the loss of these jobs, they look to new industries and re-training to stabilize the area’s economy.

“It’s bad news. There’s no question about it,” said Tim Climer, executive director of the Community Growth Alliance, “but we’re optimistic and not giving up. A lot of people are working to help. We hope our folks come out of this with more skills and better jobs than before.”

Shortly after Climer arrived in West Point last May, 400 jobs were lost at the plant. He and other community leaders have been looking for a buyer for the facility since that time and there are prospects.

“We continuously work with prospects and have a lot going on here in addition to manufacturing,” he said. “Our economic development strategy includes a vigorous Main Street Program, increased tourism, a beefed up retirement program and several big retail projects. These are quality of life issues, but they’re also jobs. We just have to educate our folks for service and technical jobs.”

Feeling it personally

Pete Hodo says the loss of these jobs is personal to him and others in the community. “I know a lot of people who work at Sara Lee. These are people I grew up with and see on a regular basis. They depend on the plant,” he said. “It’s clear that it’s way more personal for us than it is for Sara Lee. They made a business decision and I understand that.”

Hodo is president of Bank First Financial Services and also president of the Alliance. “As a business person, I have to look for the silver lining in the cloud,” he said. “I am hopeful this will bring our community closer together and help us realize that we can accomplish many things. We are all affected by the closure of a facility as significant as Sara Lee. I am convinced we will be able to attract other companies that look for skilled, efficient, hard working people.”

The Mississippi Department of Employment Security (MDES) intends to play a significant role in helping those who’re losing jobs. Gloria Neal is chief of the department’s Rapid Response Team and is wasting no time initiating the recovery effort.

“We’ve pulled together a team from local leaders, workforce training officials and WIN Job Centers,” she said. “We can help these workers through job centers and the community colleges.”

She and her team received a letter from Sara Lee last fall warning of the layoffs and met with company and union representatives. The MDES team developed an employee profile of needs, educational levels and re-training opportunities to put together a strategic plan of what needs to be done. They also set up a mobile WIN Job Center to help employees look for jobs such as applying with industrial newcomer SeverCorr and to take unemployment claims on the site. All services are at no cost to employees.

“Many of these employees have worked there a long time and have been out of school a long time. They may need training in basic skills in addition to new job skills,” Neal said. “There are many, many things we can do, and I know the community is working, too.”

Neal and her team will be back in West Point in the coming days and weeks and she, too, is optimistic about the future for the laid-off employees. “It’s a sad situation but the sooner we find out this type of thing is happening, the more we can do to help,” she said. “We’ve already done a considerable amount of training for SeverCorr, and we’re getting calls from others wanting to help. It will take a regional response. I certainly can’t minimize that.”

Hodo points out that Bryan Foods and Sara Lee have been great corporate citizens in West Point and the Golden Triangle.

“From employing thousands of people in the area, some from one generation to the next and to many other very worthwhile charities, the Bryan family’s leadership at Sara Lee has been a tremendous asset,” he said. “The company has provided many support jobs through the years as well. Over the years, many people have moved to the area with Sara Lee and chosen to stay here after retirement.”

Based upon a conservative multiplier effect of 2.5, Hodo estimates the closing will have a $200- to $300-million impact on the Golden Triangle area. This figure includes lost wages, support services and their related wages, trucking, retail sales and others.

Larger issues

Jay Moon, president of the Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA), says he’s extremely sorry to see the plant closing. “The plant has been a major factor in the economy of the area,” he said. “It’s personal to me because my wife is from West Point and her father worked there.”

The closing also emphasizes a theme Moon and his association have been proclaiming for some time. “We have to pay attention to our existing manufacturers,” he said. “They’re in a global economy and must make decisions every day regarding that. We try to pay attention and be proactive to keep our companies here.”

Part of that strategy for the MMA is to promote legislation aimed at helping the state’s manufacturers by minimizing costs here that manufacturers don’t have in other states and countries. One measure proposed in this session is to eliminate the 1-1/2% sales tax on replacement parts for manufacturers that Moon says most states don’t have.

Another proposal would give manufacturers a property tax exemption for pollution control equipment. Moon says this equipment won’t make companies more efficient or competitive, but they must pay for it and then will pass along the costs.

“Forty states exclude these taxes and that makes us less competitive with other states and globally,” he said. “We try to do everything we can to be more competitive. We need to understand that we are in a globally competitive marketplace and that nothing is forever anymore.”

In Mississippi, 16% of jobs are manufacturing and Moon says there is some growth in that sector although the Sara Lee closing knocks back the gains somewhat.

Gray Swoope, executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority and a West Point native, pledged help from the state. “We are deeply saddened at the announcement of the closure of Sara Lee’s West Point facility, which has been an institution in this community,” he said. “Be assured that the state will continue to work with the West Point/Clay County Community Growth Alliance to find a viable buyer for the plant and help retain this productive workforce.”

Sara Lee Foods’ parent company, Consolidated Foods, acquired West Point’s Bryan Foods in 1968. In 1975, John H. Bryan was named CEO of the company and net sales reached $2.4 billion. He was elected chairman of the board in 1976 and retained that position until October 2001.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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