Originally created 09/23/99

Foster layoffs difficult for town workers



WAGENER -- Officials at Wagener Manufacturing Co. plan to shutdown its sewing department, laying off about 80 employees.

Company officials say about 60 employees will be retained to operate a distribution center for Foster Industries Inc., the parent company of the Wagener operation.

It's an announcement that company employees and area residents have feared for some time.

"I have been aware that this was going to happen for two or three years," said Aiken County Councilwoman Kathy Rawls. "I really wonder if eventually there will be no industry left in this country -- all gone overseas or to Mexico."

Foster Industries is not moving the jobs overseas, says Robert Yaspan, president of the New York-based company, but he does attribute the shutdown of the line to foreign competition.

"It's the result of import competition," Mr. Yaspan said. "We have been trying to keep this company going for years and it's a really sad occasion that we have to do this."

The company has been something of a family affair, not only for the approximately 1,400 townspeople but for the owners of the corporation. The Wagener factory was established by Mr. Yaspan's father in 1946. Ed Carver, plant manager and uncle of Wagener Mayor Steve Carver, has worked at the plant for 41 years.

"I've never worked anywhere else," he said.

In fact, the mayor once worked at the plant as a part-time employee while he was in high school.

Though no surprise, the news has still devastated the small town. It has been the area's main source of jobs for those unable or unwilling to commute to the Aiken or Columbia areas. But local officials began taking steps to offset the bad news some time ago, the mayor said.

"We've been working with other groups, like Palmetto Leadership, to try to bring in new industry and we have made improvements in our water and sewer system to be ready for industrial development," Mr. Carver said.

Joining with officials from the towns of Salley and Perry, local leaders are looking into the possibility of acquiring an industrial site that would make the southeastern section of Aiken County more attractive to industry.

Another push is being made by Fred Humes, director of the Economic Development Partnership for Aiken County.

"It's a difficult situation but it is one we have been working on for quite a while and we hope to find an existing building to use to attract incoming industry," Mr. Humes said.

Reach Pat Willis at (803) 279-6895.