Originally created 01/06/02

Augusta suffers as industry declines



The Augusta area has been losing textile and apparel industry jobs at a steady clip for more than 30 years.

Last year was no exception, but things could have been much worse had Standard Textile Co. not stepped in to purchase the city's century-old King Mill from its bankrupt owner.

"If we didn't buy this plant, it would be shuttered, closed," said Edward Frankel, senior vice president and chief financial officer of the Cincinnati company. "Nobody else would have taken it."

More than 306 mill employees found themselves suddenly out of work in May when Spartan International of Spartanburg, S.C., closed the plant without warning. Just weeks later, Standard purchased the property from Spartan's primary creditor, General Electric Capital Corp., for almost $3 million.

Although the equipment was old and the property environmentally questionable, Standard bought the mill because it is the primary manufacturer of the hospital blankets Standard sells.

Standard orchestrated a similar deal last month in Thomaston, Ga., when it purchased Thomaston Mills Inc.'s Peerless Division for nearly $4 million. Thomaston closed the division, which makes sheets and pillowcases, in June after filing for bankruptcy protection.

Standard has hired about 200 workers to run the Augusta mill.

"We certainly are looking to increase the volume of the product in that facility, and that may involve additional (employees)," Mr. Frankel said.

The number of people working in the Augusta-Aiken area textile industry fell from 4,800 in November 2000 to 4,600 in November 2001, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. The number of people working in the apparel-manufacturing industry fell from 1,700 to 1,500 during the same period.

In November 1994, the year that the North American Free Trade Agreement was passed, 6,500 area workers were employed in textiles, and 3,700 were employed by apparel manufacturers.

The steady employment decline, caused by increased automation and weak market conditions wrought by a flood of foreign competition, is most visible at Avondale Mills, the area's largest textile company.

The Monroe, Ga., company employed nearly 3,500 area residents when it acquired 10 local facilities from the Graniteville Co. in 1996. Now it employs 2,300.

Avondale Vice President Craig Crockard said the company is financially secure and its local mills continue to be upgraded as part of a $90 million long-term improvement plan.

However, like other textile manufacturers, Avondale has been hit hard by the recession and continued price pressure from foreign competitors.

"Business is not strong at this time," said Mr. Crockard, whose company is one of the leading producers of denim fabric. "There has been a weak retail environment. ... We think business conditions will improve in spring."

Not all companies could weather the market weakness. Spartanburg-based Mayfair Mills Inc. shut down three mills last year, including one in Lincolnton, Ga., putting 150 residents out of work.

The Mayfair closing was preceded by a long list of others, including Healthtex Inc. in Warrenton, Ga.; Thomson's Thomson Co.; Burke Manufacturing in Waynesboro, Ga., and Augusta's Bell Fatigues.

Avondale and Standard say their local operations have long-term viability.

"With the proper amount of investment, with the proper training and with good management, capital intensive textile manufacturing can be successful in the U.S.," Mr. Frankel said.