Milliken to close Barnwell plant

A Barnwell County textile plant is closing after more than 50 years of operation.

The move will put 125 people out of work and make county and city lawmakers ponder ways to solve future budget shortfalls because of the closing.

Milliken & Company announced Dec. 17 it will start cutting operations in January and closing its doors for good by mid-2009.

“Some of the markets Barnwell served will be shifted to other facilities in South Carolina,” said Richard Dillard, the director of public affairs for Milliken & Company.

A shrinking market, global competition, a poor economy and a push toward consolidation to strengthen the company’s efficiency are reasons for the close, he said.

Milliken employs around 125 people and worker phasing out will begin after Jan.1, said Dillard.

“Certainly the closing of the Barnwell plant is no reflection on its workforce — we couldn’t ask for better people,” said Dillard.

He said he had no specific details on worker severance pay, a detailed timeline or other matters related to the closing. Company officials said efforts will be made to offer Barnwell workers jobs at other Milliken plants in the state.

Milliken has more than 25 plants in South Carolina, Dillard said.

In addition, Milliken human resources teams will meet one-on-one with workers to discuss individual options  for them including finding work locally for them.

“What we will probably do is connect with other industries in Barnwell and other outlying areas,” Dillard said.While current Milliken employees might soon be looking for new jobs — both Barnwell County and Barnwell City councils will be looking for ways to cover future budget shortfalls caused by the plant’s closing.

Barnwell County receives funds from a fee-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement as well as other taxes paid on real estate and equipment.

In fiscal year 2008-09, the county expects to collect about $325,000 for the county and schools, said Barnwell County Councilman Keith Sloan.

In fiscal year 2009-10, around $280,000 is expected, he said.

“But the true impact will be felt in fiscal year 2010-11 — that’s when we’ll feel the full impact — and we don’t know what it is yet,” said Sloan.

Sloan said Barnwell County Auditor Jim Fickling is looking into the matter.

The finance committee is also holding a meeting in late December or early January, said Sloan. 

 He said he would like to see steps taken now in budget cutting to prepare for the future.

At the Jan. 6 County Council meeting, a second reading for an amendment to change parts of the county’s approximate $13.5 million total budget is set for the agenda.

“I’d like to see some recommendations by the next Council meeting,” said Sloan.

Milliken uses five water wells for its operations that historically yields about $250,000 in annual water fees for the city, said Barnwell City Administrator John Zawacki.

Budgeted expenses for city water operations are about $1.5 million a year, he said.

But the plant’s closing will eventually lead to a $250,000 budget gap, said Zawacki.

“We anticipate a loss of around $100,000 this fiscal year,” said Zawacki. “But in the next fiscal year we anticipate a quarter of a million dollar loss.”

Zawacki said he doesn’t know what steps City Council will take to fight the revenue loss.

The city raised residential and commercial water/sewer fees in October and it doesn’t want to raise fees again, he said.

Furthermore, city council can’t raise millage rates because those are capped by state law, said Zawacki.

“My job is to evaluate the situation and mitigate it to the best of my ability, said Zawacki.

“We hate to see them (Milliken) go.”

As does the Barnwell County Council.

“It’s not a good thing,” said  Sloan. “We’re going to see some hits — it’s just something we’re going to have to deal with.”

For Barnwell County Councilman Flowe Trexler, the loss of the Milliken plant is more than just dollars and cents.

Trexler was an engineering manager at the plant for more than 30 years.

Although he retired in 1987, he worked another 15 years for Milliken as an engineering consultant.

He helped build the facility and was there when work broke ground on it July 1955 where he met a lifelong friend and future colleague.

“Keith’s (Sloan) daddy was one of the contractors and I met him when the mill was being built,” said Trexler.

Sloan recalled he was 16 and on “the business end of a shovel” when he met Trexler while building a loading dock at the plant.

“It was the biggest thing in this part of the country at the time,” Trexler said when the plant kicked off its first production run of woolen cloth in May 1956.

Back then, it was  the Ameritron plant, and it put around 1,250 people in to work in the area.

“We took the raw material; made the yarn; wove the cloth; dyed it and finished it; and then shipped it straight to the cutters,” said Trexler.

Originally, the material shipped out of the plant was 100 percent wool, he said.

But later the production lines began to crank out cloth blends using polyester and cotton, he said.

In the mid-1960s, Ameritron was brought by Milliken — and by the 1970s the workforce shrunk to around 600 as yarn-making operations were moved to other plants.

By the early 1990s, the weaving operation for Milliken moved to a Johnston factory, which cut employment to around 300.

Trexler said Milliken was a wonderful place to work at and he hates to see it go.

“I think it’s tragic the mill is going to shut down for economic reasons,” he said.

He said the Milliken plant has potential for other industries to come in and set up shop — most notably chemical or industrial industry.

“I’d love to see it put to use of some type,” said Trexler.