Shutdown news hits Aberdeen hard

Published 4:00 pm Wednesday, October 24, 2007

With news of nearly 200 jobs leaving Aberdeen, Monroe County officials are scrambling to create a plan to recruit new industry and replace the lost jobs.

Triton Aluminum Boats is closing its doors by early next year, Brunswick Corp. officials announced recently.

Though the announcement was made Oct. 18, manufacturing manager John Wills said most of the plant’s 177 employees knew the closing was coming.

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“I think everybody was pretty confident that the plant was going to close down,” he said.

Wills was the first employee on the company payroll when the plant opened Aug. 1, 2000.

The plant was bought out from Triton Aluminum Boats, headquartered in Nashville, Tenn., by Lake Forest, Ill.’s Brunswick in 2005.

For Wills, it was evident the Aberdeen plant would not be a long-term investment.

“This plant was not equipped with some of the tools you need to efficiently run a manufacturing operation. It seemed like they didn’t want to waste money on a plant they were going to close.”

Though he saw the early warning signs, Wills said the company gave employees no indication the plant was closing.

Monroe County’s Board of Supervisors was under the impression the company would be in Monroe County for the long run.

“Within the last six months we were talking about an expansion,” said Billy Kirkpatrick, board of supervisors president.

When Brunswick found another, more cost-effective location outside Mississippi, company officials abandoned their plans to renovate the Aberdeen plant.

Brunswick will transfer production of the Triton line of boats to its Little Falls, Minn., facility, creating an unspecified amount of jobs in that area. Brunswick manufactures boats, marine engines, fitness equipment and bowling and billiards products.

The goal, said chairman and CEO of Brunswick, Dustan McCoy, is to reduce costs by moving higher volume through fewer plants.

The Aberdeen plant is slated to close in early March 2008, but local officials and employees have said some workers will be asked to leave as early as December.

The loss of jobs at a time when the unemployment rate is already high is a blow to the community. The state’s unemployment rate was at 5.9 percent in August; Monroe County’s was 9.7 percent.

“We need to gain jobs, not lose jobs,” Kirkpatrick said.

Even with prospective industry scouting Aberdeen, with no guarantees, the loss is still going to hurt the city, Aberdeen Mayor Cecil Belle said.

“It’s going to be a blow to us any way we look at it. We hate to lose anything,” Belle said. “Right now we do have some (prospects), but we’re not able to talk about them right now.”

Even with prospects, Wills said, soon-to-be laid off employees have a hard road ahead.

“At the unemployment rate we’ve got in this community, these people are going to be hard-pressed to find a job — particularly one that offers the same pay scale they were offered here,” he said. “It’s going to be a lifestyle adjustment for all of us.”

Wills, 65, plans to retire when the plant closes.

“I’ll be 66 in January, and I have no desire to build any more boats or start any more plants,” he said.

Though his future is relatively secure, Wills said he’s still angry at the situation and worries about the future of his fellow employees and the county.

“I think it’s a bad lick for this plant to come down. To have the thing sold out or bought out for the sake of making a dollar I don’t think its fair to those people.”

The Brunswick management team is meeting with the Mississippi Department of Employment Services’ rapid response team Friday to discuss options for laid-off employees after the plant closes and to schedule an orientation.

Without knowing whether there will be aid available for job training and other educational opportunities, MDES can only schedule an orientation, said MDES representative Katherine Stokes. Representatives from job centers, community colleges and other MDES partners will be at the orientation to help employees build resumes and search for employment.