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Published: Sunday, 1/21/2007

Plant closings take toll in Fulton County's Archbold

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

ARCHBOLD, Ohio There s a tradition that Archbold village leaders have kept each January involving steak dinners and the financial health of what has always been the most prosperous corner of Fulton County.

At the second meeting of the month, the mayor, village administrator, and councilmen jot down on small slips of paper their guesses for the amount of money the village income tax will produce in the new year.

The slips go into an envelope, where they remain until the first meeting of the next year, when the total receipts from the village s 1.5 percent income tax are announced.

Those whose guesses arefurthest from the mark pick up the tab for a steak dinner for those whose are closest.

In recent years, the smart money has chosen a number that s about $100,000 more than the year before.

This year, even the optimists are thinking about numbers that are tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars below last year s record collection of nearly $4.9 million. And next year looks far worse.

For years, the village about 50 miles west of Toledo has had more jobs than it had people. That s still true, but its economy is changing.

One Archbold factory has closed, and two other plant closings have been announced. Together, they are expected to cull some 800 jobs from the village of 4,505 residents.

• In June, Leggett & Platt Inc. s Young Spring & Wire Division plant, which made automotive seating components, closed, ending 168 jobs that averaged about $16 an hour.

• In September, ConAgra Foods Inc. announced a restructuring that is to include closing its Archbold plant that employs more than 400 as well as a smaller Perrysburg Township plant. Layoffs at the Archbold plant, which has made Healthy Choice soup and La Choy products, are to start Feb. 15 and continue through midsummer. Both ConAgra plants have veteran workers who are paid $15 to $23 an hour, plus about $10 an hour in benefits, according to union leaders.

• Earlier this month, Cooper-Standard Automotive Inc. said it would close its Archbold plant, ending the jobs of 215 employees by the summer of 2008.

It is a very trying time, said Joe Short, a Fulton County commissioner who operates an insurance agency and a restaurant in the village.

When Young Spring & Wire closed, about six of his insurance clients moved out of the area, with several taking new jobs in Tennessee. Mr. Short isn t licensed in Tennessee, so he could only help link them with new providers there.

Likewise, he expects his Betty s restaurant to be affected by the plant closures, even though he s hopeful that this month s word from Cooper-Standard is the last such announcement in the village.

Are we at the bottom yet? I don t know, he said.

The news in Archbold isn t all bad.

At Sauder Woodworking Co., the largest employer in Fulton County, President Kevin Sauder is excited about a large, new, multiyear contract that he said should be finalized within days.

If that comes together as expected, Sauder would be taking over work that s now done overseas. It probably won t add lots of jobs. But it should result in additional truckloads of production per day on top of the average of 100 tractor-trailer loads of wooden furniture that Sauder has been filling daily to further secure the 2,800 jobs Sauder has in the village limits.

I m positive about things going forward, said Mr. Sauder, whose company also employs 700 people elsewhere in Ohio and Indiana.

Village Administrator Dennis Howell said the only cuts that have been made to Archbold s budget are for overtime and capital projects that can be delayed. And he and other governmental leaders reiterate that there are still more jobs than residents in Archbold and that it remains a prosperous, hard-working community.

We re survivors here, Mr. Short said.

Indeed, Sharon Taylor, general manager of the Archbold Buckeye, a local newspaper, brought up tales from generations ago of what was thought to be catastrophe when the village s grain elevator closed.

This is not the first time Archbold has suffered a loss of jobs, she said.

But the grain elevator closing she referred to was back when her husband s father, Orrin Taylor, or maybe even his father, W.O. Taylor, was putting out the weekly.

And it s been a long time since the village has seen the kind of downturn that s likely this year.

The last time village income tax receipts dropped from one year to the next was in 1995, when they were about $110,000 less than the previous year. Two years later, however, they had shot up by almost $600,000 to a new record.

That s how it s typically gone in the village, where only three years out of the past 40 have produced lower income tax collections than the previous year.

Among individual families, Archbold has one of the highest median incomes in the rural areas west of Toledo. Archbold s median income is $43,155 on recent U.S. Census reports, which is $4,000 to $8,000 higher than the figures from many surrounding communities.

But keeping up the village s numbers of good-paying jobs won t be easy.

Right now we re not seeing a lot of interest in northwest Ohio, said Fred Eldridge, economic development director for Fulton County.

Jeff Ott, president and chief executive of Bil-Jax Inc., one of the larger employers in Archbold, sees the same trend.

Northwest Ohio is not really creating a lot of new business, he said. You don t see this as a center of growth coming into the area. You travel around the country and there s lots of other places people are going to go first, he said. If you re trying to figure out where you re going to open up a business or relocate, I just don t think this would be the first place.

It s hard to say why.

Is it the taxes? The utility rates? The unions? The cold, gray winter days?

Mr. Eldridge said he doesn t always hear reasons.

Carol Grime, owner of Carol Ann s caf downtown, says she hears talk of various establishments that are said to be considering moving to the village.

But you know how rumors are, she said. Half the time they aren t true.

Across Defiance Street at the Home Restaurant, waitress Tamera Mikesell said the folks she knows at ConAgra and Cooper-Standard are hoping company leaders take a long time to close the plants.

Most of them are all hanging in there till the end, she said, adding that she knows several couples in which both the husband and wife are employed at the plants that are to close.

Those closure decisions all appear to have been made elsewhere.

Young Spring & Wire was acquired by Leggett & Platt, of Carthage, Mo., in 1990.

ConAgra is based in Omaha. Its Archbold plant was opened in 1942 by La Choy, whose Detroit factory was commandeered to make munitions during World War II. Over the years it has been owned by Beatrice Foods and Hunt-Wesson.

Cooper-Standard of Novi, Mich., was bought from Findlay s Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. in 2004 by the Cypress Group and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners Funds.

That makes Archbold s large plants that are homegrown and remain locally controlled even more special.

Take Sauder Woodworking.

Its headquarters is on Middle Street, tucked away off the main drag because the company started behind the home of founder Erie Sauder and has remained there.

From his office, Kevin Sauder, the founder s grandson and now president of the company, can look down at the drive where he learned to ride a bicycle. He said he plans to stay put.

It s a great place to live and a great place to be, he said.

Sharon Taylor of the Archbold Buckeye agrees. We look like a bed of roses compared to some other places.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:jschmucker@theblade.comor 419-337-7780.



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