LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Whirlpool Corp. announced Thursday that it will close its refrigerator plant in Fort Smith, long the most important employer in the city, next year in a move that will put about 1,000 people out of work.
The company issued a statement blaming the closure, set to occur in mid-2012, on a decrease in demand for side-by-side refrigerators and price pressure from competitors.
The factory employed 4,600 people five years ago, but that number has declined in the poor economy and since Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool opened a refrigerator factory in Mexico.
Whirlpool said the shutdown will affect 884 hourly workers and 90 salaried employees. Another 800 workers were on layoff from the factory and on a recall list.
In addition to side-by-side refrigerators, the plant produces trash compactors and built-in refrigerators. The company said trash compactor production is to move to Ottawa, Ohio, and built-in refrigerator production is to move to Amana, Iowa.
Whirlpool said its plant at Ramos Arizpe, Mexico, will take on side-by-side refrigerator production, but the company said the plant can absorb the production without hiring new workers.
A number of Fort Smith-area companies that supplied the Whirlpool plant have already scaled back production or closed. Southern Steel and Wire, for instance, announced its shutdown in 2010, putting 100 workers in the unemployment line.
Manufacturing jobs in Fort Smith dropped from 23,322 in 2000 to 14,736 in 2009, a decline of 36.8 percent, according to a study by the Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Fort Smith has a population of 86,200.
The sharp downward trend is mirrored statewide, where nearly 86,900 manufacturing jobs disappeared in the same period, a 34.6 percent plunge.
Gov. Mike Beebe has worked to recruit higher-paying manufacturing jobs to Arkansas, and Whirlpool has been regarded in the upper tier of employers. But the state has still seen many jobs move overseas, particularly those that don't require skilled labor.
"While this is a sad day, we won't let this news hold back Fort Smith's prospects for the future," Beebe said. "Our efforts will begin immediately to replace these jobs and get these hundreds of skilled employees back to work once Whirlpool leaves."
Beebe noted that the closure was based on economic factors and said it didn't reflect on the quality of the work force in Fort Smith.
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders said the city will do all it can to retain its manufacturing base.
"But (Thursday's) announcement underscores the importance of developing a broader base of employment opportunities," Sanders said.
City Administrator Ray Gosack said the city will work to place Whirlpool workers locally.
"During the past several years, approximately 3,500 Whirlpool workers have been laid off, and most have found other employment in the regional economy," Gosack said.
Whirlpool said it will help employees with "transition assistance," and that it is working with state and local officials to make training available to them.
Over the summer, Rheem Manufacturing Co., another major Fort Smith employer, announced a plan to move 250 jobs to a plant in Mexico.
Fort Smith has landed a $100 million Mitsubishi Power Systems wind turbine plant that is to employ 300 or more people when production starts. The company could begin production next year, but it is tied up in a lawsuit over its turbine design.