Originally created 05/23/06

All plants might close

Total shutdown.

Avondale Mills Inc. announced Monday that the company could close for good July 25 after more than a century in the textile business.

That would mean 4,000 lost jobs, 18 closed plants and a dozen closed sales offices, said the manager of corporate development, Stephen Felker Jr. Nearly 2,000 of those job cuts would hit Aiken County, where the plant is the biggest private-sector employer.

"My father is the chairman and CEO. I am the fifth generation to work in the business. I was looking forward to having a career with Avondale," Mr. Felker said. "That just now doesn't look like it's going to be the case."

Increased foreign competition and the 2005 Graniteville train wreck packed a one-two punch, he said.

The Monroe, Ga.-based company, with plants in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, is still hoping to stave off a shutdown by selling its operation, Mr. Felker said.

Potential buyers already have expressed interest in three facilities - two in Alabama and the Townsend plant in Aiken County, he said. He also said leaders will consider a restructuring that might save part of the company, though he did not offer details.

Regardless, employees were told that plant closures appear imminent.

"We wanted to give associates as much notice as possible, in fairness to them," Mr. Felker said.

Earlier this month, Avondale announced the closing in June of Augusta's Sibley Mill, which employs 115. Though Mr. Felker would not elaborate, he said that a companywide closure likely would affect group health plans and that benefits would be considered on a case-by-case basis.

For Aiken County, where Avondale operates seven facilities, the effects would be devastating, said Fred Humes, the director of the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership.

"There's no way we can get jobs for everybody," Mr. Humes said.

The shutdown is not a total surprise to leaders of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, which closely monitors the textile business.

"All of the market growth here in the U.S. is just being captured by imports from Asia," spokesman Lloyd Wood said. "That's basically the bottom line."

Currency manipulation, labor costs and trade subsidies are crippling the textile and apparel industries, Mr. Wood said. Since 2001, textile and apparel manufacturers have cut 423,000 U.S. jobs. South Carolina's jobs dropped from 79,400 to 40,700, and Georgia's dropped from 109,000 to about 80,000, he said.

In 2005, the company had sales totaling $569.2 million but lost $2.6 million, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission records show.

The main reason for the closing, however, is the Graniteville train crash, company leaders say.

"Without the train derailment and chemical spill, we were challenged. With it, we were destroyed," CEO G. Stephen Felker said in a letter to employees.

On Jan. 6, 2005, two engines of Norfolk Southern train 192 crashed into a parked railcar on a spur line, rupturing a tank car carrying 90 tons of chlorine. The accident claimed nine lives - including those of six Avondale workers.

The chlorine spill has proved to be a cancer on the Graniteville plant, eating at the structure and electronics, Mr. Felker said.

The company has spent more than $52 million in cleanup costs, according to SEC filings.

A lawsuit is still pending between Norfolk Southern and Avondale, according to Norfolk spokesman Robin Chapman, who would not comment further.

As July 25 approaches, area economic developers will meet and attempt to mitigate damage. Mr. Humes said he hopes to hire someone to focus solely on the fallout an Avondale shutdown would cause. He also hopes to fund an economic impact study.

David Jameson, the president of Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce, speculated that Aiken County residents make up the bulk of workers at the Graniteville facilities and that the majority of them live in Midland Valley.

"Aiken County has been fortunate over the last several months to have had some 400 job-creation announcements made, so that will help some, but whether that will pertain to these same people is yet to be determined also," Mr. Jameson said.

Debra Atkinson, the chairwoman of Midland Valley Chamber of Commerce, is a Midland Valley native and said she knows how the news of the closing affected people in the tight-knit community.

"I'm sure the people who work there and live in the immediate area of Graniteville are probably in shock, a little bit shocked by it and a little bit about what to do next," she said.

For Ronnie Young, the problem is twofold. Mr. Young is a human resources manager for Avondale and the chairman of Aiken County Council.

"First, I'll try to help other people, and then I'll worry about me down the road," said Mr. Young, who has worked for Avondale for 28 years.

What's likely to happen soon, Mr. Jameson said, is a massive retraining effort by a team formed from among the county's major economic development groups.

Many of those being laid off have probably worked in textiles their entire adult lives, Mr. Jameson said. He said their employment prospects probably will hinge on their job skills or willingness to learn a new trade.

"It really depends on what the job is, with what level of difficulty people are going to have," he said, "and the person's willingness to be retrained. Some people are going to have the opportunity to start laterally; other people are going to have to swallow hard and take a step back until their skill level comes up again."

Special projects editor Mike Wynn contributed to this article.

Reach Tony Lombardo at (706) 823-3227 or tony.lombardo@augustachronicle.com.


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