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Sparta lighting plant closure looming

Liz Engel Clark
Friday, Mar 2, 2012

Various employees of Philips Lighting line up for a group photo.

SPARTA – For 25 years, Bo McCurry has called this place home. For the last 1.5, he’s watched it die.

Philips Lighting has gone from a best plant to a ghost town in a matter of months – and it’s scene that’s gotten progressively bleaker since word first broke about the Sparta plant’s closure.

Production here has already ceased. Workers have watched as equipment’s shipped out the door. There’s a public liquidation sale upcoming.

March 30 will mark the official end of the line. It’s the day that McCurry – and dozens of his co-workers – will walk out the doors together for the last time.

“It’s naked out here now,” McCurry, a 25-year employee, says. “There ain’t nothing but dirt floors. It sort of breaks your heart for all the stuff we’ve worked so hard to keep here all these years.”

Although workers at the Sparta plant knew this day was coming, it doesn’t make things any easier. And Brent Hall remembers it well – the day official news came from Philips that the plant, still referred to as Genlyte Thomas by some locally, was closing and operations were being moving Mexico. It was Veteran’s Day 2010.

“You talk about being knocked offline. It was a total shock,” Hall, a representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local Union 2143, said. “Just totally the last thing you thought you’d ever hear.”

It was such a surprise, Hall said, because the Sparta plant, just a year earlier, had been named a top 10 best plant by Industry Week magazine. At an internal awards ceremony, Hall said Philips employees racked up and returned with boxes of awards. When Philips first announced the closure in 2010, the plant had approximately 275 employees. Today, around 100 remain.

“There is nothing they could have done from a performance standpoint to prevent this, and that’s the most frustrating thing,” Lisa Norris, a former human resource manager at Philips, said. “The people there were doing their best.”

Dialing down

Of course, Sparta employees didn’t take the news lying down. A community proposal to purchase the plant from Philips was crafted. Leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., to further dialogue with congressional representatives. They were turned down.

Original plans had the plant closing later this year, but the date has been moved forward and is now quickly looming - production ceased Feb. 17, McCurry said. Workers have been mothballing the building - tearing things down and cleaning up - in the days since. The operation formally shuts down March 30.

“Right now it’s just like a ghost town. It’s about like going to prison camp every morning,” McCurry said. “It’s a struggle everyday, just watching stuff go out. They’re just selling it out from right under us.”

The biggest layoffs came around Christmas, around 100. McCurry’s wife, Donna, who had also worked at Philips for 25 years, was among them. She went back to school to become a CNA, a certified nursing assistant, something she’d wanted to do since she was younger, he said. But McCurry hasn’t been as lucky. He currently has no plans after the plant closes.

“The only thing I know to do is construction, and I’m too old for that,” McCurry, who’s 57, said. “And you know how jobs are now, especially in this industry. We’ve only got one or two major plants left here in White County. I don’t know. I’m still up in the air.”

The union was able to negotiate a “very small” severance package for workers as well as continuing insurance benefits for a few months, Hall said. Different parties have also offered re-training opportunities, interviewing and financial classes; dozens enrolled in adult education classes and have received their GED, Norris said. A new 10-week program offered through the Highlands Initiative called “Yes, I Can” matched Philips workers with mentors who helped them create new plans of action. Norris served as the training instructor for the program.

“If you walk in the plant today, there’s a little sadness, but they’re friendly and gracious,” Norris said. She can tell many positive stories about workers who are starting their own businesses, who are beginning new careers. “Some are excited because they’re seeing a new future and new possibilities. We will not rest until every soul has found a new occupation.

“Manufacturing is not dead,” Norris added, saying that the Sparta deal has grabbed the attention of those in Washington. “We tend to overplay the idea that manufacturing isn’t a great place to be. We need people who are excited. We need to do something long range.”

But both McCurry and Hall say the closure could deal a big hit to a county that’s already consistently hovering above 10 percent unemployment. Norris figured that the closure would ultimately impact 2,275 jobs – directly and indirectly – all the way to those in the corrugation and steel industry to small suppliers and more.

“I think it’s probably one of the final blows to Sparta and to White County,” Hall said. “And the sad thing is, we did things here that were unheard of - the cooperation was one of the best examples that I’ve ever seen. They (Philips) couldn’t have asked for a (better) group.”

All that’s history now. Workers are counting down the days until they walk out together, put the padlocks on the door and say their final goodbyes. Ironically, it’s a day McCurry’s now looking forward to.

“I still really don’t understand it,” McCurry said. “But that’s why they make the big bucks, I guess.”

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