Whirlpool's clos­ing in Fort Smith, a 'bump in the road'

El Dorado News-Times - - Opinion -

Look­ing back dur­ing Na­tional Man­u­fac­tur­ing Month at Whirlpool's 2012 shut­down in Fort Smith has proven to be in­sight­ful and in­spir­ing. More than five years af­ter los­ing a ma­jor em­ployer in the city, we are still hear­ing suc­cess sto­ries from those who per­se­vered af­ter a job loss.

When the plant closed in June 2012, it was a somber mo­ment for many. The clos­ing ended a more than 50-year his­tory at the plant, which opened in 1962 un­der the own­er­ship of the Norge Co. The Norge plant man­u­fac­tured freez­ers, re­frig­er­a­tors and air con­di­tion­ers. Whirlpool bought the fa­cil­ity in 1966 and ex­panded op­er­a­tion.

By 2012, the work­force at the plant had fallen from 4,600 in the mid-1990s to about 825, the re­sult of sev­eral years of re­duc­tions. A ma­jor pro­duc­tion line — side-by-side re­frig­er­a­tors — al­ready had been trans­ferred to a new plant in Ramos Arizpe, Mex­ico, when the com­pany an­nounced the clos­ing.

When it closed June 29, 2012, some work­ers who left that day for the last time left their work boots be­hind, in­clud­ing one that con­tained a note that read, "Never more shall I re­turn." Cer­tainly, that sen­ti­ment was un­der­stand­able. Whirlpool's exit from Fort Smith oc­curred dur­ing a dif­fi­cult pe­riod for the econ­omy, not just re­gion­ally but na­tion­ally.

The im­pact of the clos­ing was felt beyond just the em­ploy­ees it af­fected. The clos­ing took a toll on lo­cal busi­nesses through­out the re­gion that sup­plied Whirlpool with ser­vices and ma­te­ri­als. Com­pa­nies were with­out one of their largest cus­tomers. ThenGov. Mike Beebe even weighed in, call­ing the clos­ing of the Fort Smith fa­cil­ity "just heart­break­ing" and crit­i­ciz­ing the com­pany's strat­egy of shift­ing pro­duc­tion and jobs to Mex­ico as "very short­sighted."

Mean­while, the city got busy. The clos­ing had been ex­pected for some time, so it did not catch any­one off guard. In­stead, plans were in place to help get work­ers back in the job mar­ket or back in school. The Fort Smith Re­gional Cham­ber of Com­merce or­ga­nized a job fair, pair­ing lo­cal em­ploy­ers and prospec­tive em­ploy­ees. Pro­grams to train and re-ed­u­cate la­bor­ers were de­vel­oped at the Univer­sity of Arkansas at Fort Smith, Arkansas Tech Univer­sity-Ozark and Carl Al­bert State Univer­sity. Worker-train­ing pro­grams were ini­ti­ated. And other com­pa­nies have joined the area in that time, bring­ing with them jobs and new op­por­tu­ni­ties.

For­mer em­ployee Gary Sebo of Spiro re­cently called his time at Whirlpool very pos­i­tive. "Whirlpool sup­ported my fam­ily, my mom and dad's fam­ily, my broth­ers," Sebo said. "Two of my sib­lings worked there . ... It was a great op­por­tu­nity for me." Want­ing to re­main in the Fort Smith area, Sebo went on to a new ca­reer at Baldor.

Ta­mara Ta­teosian, now of Fulton, Mis­souri, went back to school at the Univer­sity of Arkansas at Fort Smith af­ter tak­ing a buy­out from Whirlpool, grad­u­at­ing in May 2012. She also took a po­si­tion with the Fort Smith Re­gional Cham­ber of Com­merce be­fore be­com­ing the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Call­away Cham­ber of Com­merce in Fulton. She re­cently touted the ex­pan­sion of area busi­nesses like Ar­cBest and Mars Pet­care in help­ing the area re­cover from los­ing a com­pany like Whirlpool.

Fort Smith Mayor Sandy San­ders re­flected on what it meant to lose a com­pany like Whirlpool and how the area has bounced back.

"... We still have a large man­u­fac­tur­ing com­mu­nity that has great im­pact on our com­mu­nity, has great im­pact on em­ploy­ment lev­els and on the in­come lev­els of em­ploy­ees, so that's been very pos­i­tive," San­ders, who worked at Whirlpool for 32 years, said re­cently. "But other por­tions of the econ­omy have grown, not just man­u­fac­tur­ing, so we're see­ing more tech­ni­cal jobs, more en­tre­pre­neur­ial type jobs. Of course, they don't have the huge num­ber of em­ploy­ees, but when you have a com­pany that ex­pands and they add 150, that's out­stand­ing be­cause you don't have to go re­cruit some­body else. You've got th­ese ex­ist­ing com­pa­nies that are hir­ing . ... "

We like to think of the loss of Whirlpool as just a bump in the road along the path that Fort Smith and its res­i­dents are on and will be on for years to come. The city has proven that it can be at­trac­tive to new em­ploy­ers look­ing to lo­cate here. The cham­ber, the city, lo­cal busi­nesses and res­i­dents alike have a part in demon­strat­ing that.

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