Garner, N.C. — 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.
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.
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.