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Specialty Filaments closure leaves workers without answers

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January 11, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Almost a week after seeing their employer close up shop, Specialty Filaments workers are still looking for answers on the future of the company and what, if any, benefits they will take with them into their search for new jobs.

Specialty Filaments closed its doors suddenly last Friday, Jan. 5, putting 175 people out of work. Company brass have offered few details, except to say Specialty Filaments was “suspending operations.”

The lack of details has left employees concerned about the status of their health care benefits and whether they will ever be returning to their jobs, according to Barry Whitney, president of Local 2624, the union that represents 150 Specialty Filaments workers.

“They picked their words very carefully,” Whitney said, of the term “suspending operations,” which he argued is just vague enough not to trigger state and federal unemployment statutes. “There has to be a statement, other than ‘We’re suspending operations.’”

Whitney and other Specialty Filaments workers were scheduled to discuss their rights and options with representatives of U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., at a Jan. 10 gathering in Middlebury.

Meanwhile, Specialty Filaments spokesman Bill Haynes in Boston offered little new information as the Addison Independent went to press on Wednesday.

“There are no plans to reopen,” Haynes wrote in an e-mail. “We don't have any additional information to report at this time. We will let you know as soon as we have more information.”

Established more than 50 years ago as “Polymers” by the Drewes family, Specialty Filaments was the world’s largest producer of synthetic filaments for brushes and brooms at one point. In recent years, however, the company faced stiffer competition from manufacturers in other countries — such as China — that can produce goods more cheaply.

During the summer of 2005, Specialty Filaments closed its Burlington factory and consolidated operations in Middlebury. The company at the time said it would add more than 30 jobs to its Middlebury work force as part of the plan.

PUBLIC FINANCING

State and local economic development agencies put together a package of tax credits, loans and grants to help Specialty Filaments launch its consolidation in Middlebury.

That aid package included a $200,000 loan through the Addison County Revolving Loan Fund. Jamie Stewart, executive director of the Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC), said it remains unclear whether the bulk of that loan will ever be paid back.

“There’s a lot of discussion that needs to go on,” Stewart said. “The ACEDC does have significant credit with them … We do have the possibility of losing a significant part of that in the process.”

He explained that great risk is inherent in some economic development loans.

“We are there to take a position in lending that no one else wants to take,” Stewart said. “We take a higher risk position, because we are looking to create and protect jobs.”

Stewart is hopeful that Specialty Filaments can sort out its financial position and perhaps once again do business in Middlebury.

“Let’s not start ringing the death toll for these guys yet,” Stewart said. “Like many companies, it may have to go through a hard time to get to a better time.”

The aid package to Specialty Filaments also included $753,000 in tax credits through the Vermont Economic Progress Council’s (VEPC) Economic Enhancement Tax Incentive Program.

Fred Kenney, executive director of VEPC, said Specialty Filaments never met specific performance targets — which included creating new jobs — that would’ve enabled the company to take advantage of the tax credits. VEPC rescinded its tax credit offer to Specialty Filaments in May of 2005, according to Kenney.

HARD TIMES FOR MANUFACTURERS

The prospective loss of Specialty Filaments would represent the latest setback in a discouraging trend within the manufacturing industry in Middlebury.

Geiger of Austria ceased production of its upscale women’s clothing in Middlebury during the spring of 2005. Citing increased competition from an ever-expanding global market, the company transferred its 18 remaining production jobs to Slovakia.

In late 2005, Questech announced it would leave its Middlebury headquarters to consolidate operations in the former Tambrands plant off Park Street in Rutland. Company officials cited the need for more space for its growing roster of 65 employees, who market metal and stone composites used for home and commercial tiles and signs.

The Questech news came on the heels of an announcement by VEMAS that it would be leaving its 28,000 square feet of rented manufacturing space in the 1197 Exchange St. building for a new, permanent space it will own in Poultney.

Highland Press and Earth’s Best  Inc. have also moved out of Middlebury’s industrial park area in recent years.

While disappointed with recent business departures, Stewart noted some recent success stories. Connor Building Co., Maple Landmark Woodcraft and Otter Creek Brewing are among newer businesses that have come to Middlebury and thrived in recent years.

“It’s kind of that natural ebb and tide,” said Stewart, who added he would continue to reach out to businesses to relocate to Addison County.

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