Slim Jim plant's demise to put 450 out of work

Staff WritersMarch 4, 2010 

ConAgra Foods plans to close its Garner Slim Jim factory by next year, laying off hundreds and dealing another blow to the region's economy.

The decision announced Wednesday means that the world's supply of Slim Jims, which came from a factory on Jones Sausage Road for more than 40 years, will no longer be locally made.

An explosion caused by a natural gas leak damaged the factory last summer, killing four workers and injuring dozens more. Since then, ConAgra has been considering whether to pump more money into further repairs or move production of the meat snacks.

Company officials told workers Wednesday afternoon that it will shift production to another ConAgra facility in Troy, Ohio, to reduce costs. Lawmakers there this week approved allowing ConAgra to skip paying property taxes for 15 years, a deal that could save the company as much as $3 million, according to Ohio media reports. In addition, unlike the Garner workers, the Ohio plant's employees are not unionized.

The Garner factory supported several generations in this mostly blue-collar town. While some employees said ConAgra's decision wasn't a shock, others expressed more bitterness.

"It was just a slap in the face," said Sean Fussell, 38, of Raleigh, who has worked at ConAgra for 18 years.

Fussell was in the plant June 9 when the explosion crumbled walls and sent debris flying. He couldn't work for five months after he suffered broken ribs and a knee injury.

Workers did everything they could to get the plant running as soon as possible, said Fussell, whose wife, Zona, has worked at the plant for 17 years.

"We all pitched in even when we were hurting," he said.

News of the plant's closure was a defeat for Garner and state officials who negotiated with ConAgra on a financial incentives package aimed at keeping the plant open. ConAgra is one of the world's largest food companies, with brands such as Chef Boyardee, Orville Redenbacher, Healthy Choice and more.

Dale Carroll, deputy secretary with the N.C. Department of Commerce, declined to comment on the size of the incentives offer. The total would have depended on the number of jobs, and the amount of ConAgra's investment, he added.

"In the end, there wasn't anything else we could do in the way of support" that would have persuaded the company to keep the Garner plant running, said Carroll, who was part of a group of officials that flew to ConAgra's headquarters in Omaha, Neb., last month to lobby for the Garner factory.

The company had wanted to stay in Garner, said Greg Smith, executive vice president of supply chain for ConAgra. But he said it's cheaper for the company to make Slim Jims at its Ohio plant, which is bigger and more modern.

"It was a very difficult decision, but it was a necessary decision," Smith said.

ConAgra halted work in Garner about noon Wednesday and shuttled employees to a meeting at Clayton's public auditorium about 10 miles away to tell them the news.

Stephen Downs, a janitor at the plant for eight years, said he doesn't know what will be next for him.

"When they close, I'm going to be 59," Downs said. "I'm handicapped, and there's no jobs out there."

Audrey Cooper-Hunt, 46, said her job allowed her to buy a house in Raleigh. She's worried how she will continue paying the mortgage. "That's 15 years of my life," she said of her time at the plant.

Garner gets site, with caveats

The company will seek to ease the pain by donating the entire factory and the 106 acres at the plant to the town. It also will donate $3 million for a community center planned in Garner and offer 20 scholarships worth $2,500 each for employees and their children.

The land, near Interstate 40 and U.S. 70, could be worth from $40,000 to $50,000 an acre, estimated Jim Anthony, a Raleigh real-estate investor.

"There's a minimum of $4 million in value there, assuming there's not an environmental issue," he said. "In a good market it could be more."

The plant is ideal for another food manufacturer or a biopharmaceutical company, said Ken Atkins, director of Wake County Economic Development.

ConAgra will demolish the damaged portions of the plant, and officials will work with state and local recruiters to help market the plant to prospective manufacturers.

At the time of the June explosion, the Garner plant was the world's only production site for Slim Jims. ConAgra resumed production at the damaged factory in July, but laid off about 300 workers last fall because of reduced capacity. The plant now employs about 450 people.

Severance negotiations

ConAgra executives will meet with the union that represents the plant's workers to negotiate severance pay and other issues. Officials with the United Federation of Commercial Workers didn't return calls seeking comment.

ConAgra will expand production at the Ohio plant during the next 12 to 15 months and add 190 employees to the 400 already there. The company shifted some production to that facility last year after the Garner plant explosion.

In January, ConAgra Foods agreed to pay a $106,440 fine and improve safety at the plant as a result of the explosion. The state Department of Labor found 26 serious health and safety violations.

Investigators say the explosion occurred as a contractor was trying to light a gas-fired water heater inside a pump room at the plant.

Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said the town will miss the company, which offered decent-paying jobs to workers without a college education.

"It's a sad day for Garner," he said.

Staff writer David Bracken contributed to this report.

sarah.nagem@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4758

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