Local News

ConAgra to close Garner plant

Posted March 3, 2010

— Nine months after four people were killed in a natural gas explosion at a ConAgra Foods Inc. plant in Garner, company officials said Wednesday that they plan to close the plant next year.

ConAgra will shut down the plant, which makes Slim Jim beef jerky products, in 15 to 18 months, eliminating about 450 jobs, officials said. Slim Jim production will be moved to a plant in Troy, Ohio.

garner building collapse Garner plant shutdown follows fatal explosion

Company officials held a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon at the Clayton Center auditorium to break the news to Garner workers. Some employees stormed out of the meeting, saying they weren't interested in hearing the severance options ConAgra was offering.

"I'm too angry to talk about it right now," one woman said as she left.

"People started crying. People started dropping their heads," employee Tim Everett said. "People (have) houses, cars, kids in college. (There's) nothing else you can do but move on."

Garner officials and representatives of the state Department of Commerce had negotiated with ConAgra for months to convince the Omaha, Neb.-based company to keep the plant open. Officials haven't disclosed what incentives had been offered.

"This is clearly a difficult decision and has ramifications to a number of people," ConAgra Executive Vice President Greg Smith said. "Our desire was to have continued production in the city of Garner. Unfortunately, the economic situation of doing so was just too overwhelming."

To soften the economic blow to Garner, officials said, ConAgra will pay $3 million toward building a planned community center in town and will donate the 450,000-square-foot plant and the surrounding 106 acres to the town to help attract a new manufacturer.

Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams said he understood the company's decision, but he was disheartened by it.

"ConAgra has always done things right and been a role model as a corporate citizen," Williams said. "It is somewhat of a sad day in Garner. I'm saddened and somewhat disappointed in the news."

An explosion ripped through the plant June 9, killing three workers and a contractor and injuring dozens of others. ConAgra reopened the plant in August, but because of its diminished production capacity, the company laid off 300 workers in November.

ConAgra workers react to closing of plant ConAgra workers react to closing of plant

As they left Wednesday's meeting, many employees said that they have worked for ConAgra for years and don't like the prospect of becoming unemployed during the worst job market in years.

"This pays the bills. It's hard to find a job these days. The economy is bad. We're disappointed," employee John Daniels said.

"It is just like another big blow, but you just have to keep the faith. We are going to be alright,” employee George Williams said.

ConAgra will offer job training and placement service to workers, officials said, but some employees said they plan to begin looking immediately for another job and not wait until the plant shuts down next year.

Some Garner workers might land jobs at other ConAgra plants across the country, Smith said.

The Ohio plant offers ConAgra a better cost structure than Garner over the long run, he said. The company plans to hire 190 workers at the Troy plant and expand production there by 74,000 square feet to accommodate the Slim Jim product line.

Tony Beasley, economic development director for Garner, said officials would work hard to find an occupant for the ConAgra plant once the company leaves.

"We are a great place to be and do business in," Beasley said. "We still have a solid business core in our community."

Federal investigators determined the Garner plant blast was caused by contractors venting natural gas inside the facility while installing a water heater.

The state Department of Labor found 27 workplace safety violations at the plant in a subsequent inspection, and ConAgra agreed to pay a $106,440 fine and implement policy and procedure changes to address potential safety issues with contractors.

State officials have since changed regulations to prohibit venting natural gas inside buildings, and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board has urged Congress to enact similar regulations nationwide.

67 Comments

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  • John Sawtooth Mar 5, 11:38 a.m.

    Whenever you have contruction, renovation or repairs to a factory you have plant, safety and site managers on site, active and keeping an eye on every aspect of the job. That's just responsibility to your employees, the factory assets and covering your liabilities during the work. So ConAgra is not entirely blameless for the accident, despite not being the actual trigger. They have a responsibility for oversight and process safety even during construction - if not strictly a legal clause, certainly a practical one.

    Then after the accident, reduced capacity and attitional OSHA violations made them decide to bail instead of fixing the issue and getting back to full capacity.

    Selecting dollars short-term over long term investment in the business and people was Con Agra's deliberate choice. There is no reason to offer them any goodwill over a short term and self-centered corporate choice - one brought on partly by their own inaction and inattention.

  • jprime Mar 4, 3:13 p.m.

    "I guess they rather do that, than to pay all the fines and the people/families that were injured and/or died in the explosion. Companies are always looking for the easy way out when it's their fault. "

    So donating 3 million dollars and over a hundred acres of land to Garner, offering severance packages and letting employees know a year in advance, and offering job placement counseling is the easy way out?

  • didisaythat Mar 4, 1:05 p.m.

    Thank you impatientgirl...you stole my thunder though. I was saying the same thing. Maybe Garner won't try to rake companies over the coals so much. It was work being done at the plant. It looked to me like Garner was trying to get money and look bad and tough because of bad media attention. Then ConAgra says fine you going to treat us like this when we employee 600 people. We can move and 600 people can look for a new job.

  • daMoFo Mar 4, 1:04 p.m.

    "If they can move it to Ohio, why NOT just keep it open here. I guess they rather do that, than to pay all the fines and the people/families that were injured and/or died in the explosion. Companies are always looking for the easy way out when it's their fault. I hope the employees can find better jobs elsewhere. Talk about a double whammie"

    Right, because moving the plant to Ohio will cause the fines and bills to disappear. And 2+2=857.

    Con Agra was not at fault for the explosion. A contractor working on the HVAC system was but why let facts get in the way.

  • pappybigtuna1 Mar 4, 12:30 p.m.

    why is the queen of NC not there, begging to keep this plant open? She said she wanted to serve the people - WELL START SERVING. You people wanted her, now what do you do with her.

    I apologize if she has done one thing for the people of this state, I don't see an apology coming

  • Patriot1 Mar 4, 11:52 a.m.

    Wonder where else Bev is going to travel on the tax payers bill to get companys to come here. I see alot of chinese companys moving here from her last trip. Lets see we lost Dell after 4 years, Now this company. IBM and GSK will be next. Also Mrs Easly brought alot here too from her tax payer trips

  • imtiredofit Mar 4, 10:48 a.m.

    Lawmakers in Ohio this week approved allowing ConAgra to skip paying property taxes for 15 years, a deal that could save the company as much as $3 million. I wonder what type of incentives Garner and the State of NC offered ConAgra to stay here in NC . 3 million dollars in taxes is nothing compared to 450 people earning real wages that go back into the local and state economy. Taking 450 people making just $25,000 per year comes to well over 11 million dollars per YEAR that goes into their hands and back into the economy. That doesn't even include the 300 workers that were let go months ago.

  • OpinionOnEverything Mar 4, 10:36 a.m.

    What a stupid idea, and an insult to the employees who have been through so much, to give Garner $3 million for a "community center" rather than add to their severance! This is an example of the greed of local government more interested in covering their own spending than looking out for its citizens. Not to mention that not all the employees are from Garner!

    A community center for what purpose? Will only Garner citizens benefit? How many former ConAgra employees will use it, or want to? The city of Garner is already getting a multi-million dollar building and land.

  • selco4 Mar 4, 10:13 a.m.

    This is truly sad to the employees that have worked there for so many years. Why donate 3 million to Garner? Give the money to the employees in larger severance packages. You are already giving Garner the land & building which is worth how many millions? Don't look after Garner look after all of your dedicated employees. I am sure it has not been easy for any of them to walk back into that building after the explosion. As for options well!! I personally love Ohio. It is a beautiful state. If given the chance to move there i would.I know a lot of people would not want that option. In today's economy you have to go where the money is.Again i do not see the reasoning in giving the town 3 million dollars. Give it back to the employees that built the Slim Jim division into what it is today.

  • mpheels Mar 4, 10:08 a.m.

    For those who are interested, here's the ConAgra webpage that lists all of their brands:

    http://www.conagrafoods.com/consumer/brands/index.jsp

    I still have a hard time believing a $100K fine was such a burden on this corporation that they couldn't afford to stay in NC. The reality is that they couldn't afford to operate duplicate manufacturing facilities, and it's a no-brainer to close the one that needs massive repairs and move all operations to the one that's in good condition.

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