Liggett, the smallest of the nation's five tobacco companies, has been considering a move from Durham, where it has been making tobacco for 100 years, because its buildings had become too big for its remaining production.
Earlier this month, company officials estimated Liggett's Durham plant was five times bigger than it needed to be.
The move to the 240,000-square foot facility in Mebane, about 30 miles from Durham in Alamance County, could leave nearly a million square feet of space vacant in downtown Durham, officials said.
The company will keep its corporate headquarters, a regional sales division and a small amount of manufacturing in Durham - employing fewer than 100 people.
Some city officials said Liggett's move opens up opportunities for downtown development.
"While we couldn't keep the manufacturing, the corporate headquarters will stay here, and they will continue to contribute to the community,'' said Ted Conner, economic development director of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce. "And in this situation the buildings are strategically located, they are generally of excellent quality and architectural merit, and that gives adaptive reuse a great chance of success."
Toreros Mexican Restaurant sits in the shadows of the huge Liggett warehouse in downtown Durham.
"I can tell you that all the people that worked there, they would come to eat lunch here," says hostess Anna Ensaf. "I don't know there names, but I know their faces. There's a lot of them that come twice a day for lunch and dinner."
Dave Lawman, a waiter at a local restaurant, has served a drink or two to Liggett employees. But even when the big name tobacco company moves out, the Tobacco Roadhouse Restaurant where he works will keep its name, and hopefully its customers.
"The people that come here are a very diverse group," Lawman said. "A lot of different people have started to learn about this area, and they come down to visit the different restaurants and bars around here."
Lawman is already watching as developers are unlocking the potential of the historic brick warehouses that housed Liggett's operation, which are now being transformed into modern places to live downtown.
"I don't know how many people could fit in the condos overthere, but it could bring 100 to 200 more people to this area," Lawman said.
Frank DePasquale, former president of the city's historic preservation society, said the corporate headquarters eventually will leave Durham as well.
"Liggett is the last of the giants leaving Durham," said DePasquale, who came to Durham in 1945. "Historically, it's sad, but as a power and economic force, I don't think it's going to hurt Durham much. There are too many other great things going on for Durham."
In the 1890s, Durham's James Buchanan Duke consolidated a near monopoly for prerolled cigarettes. His American Tobacco Co. bought Liggett & Meyers, founded in the St. Louis area, in 1899. Liggett's corporate descendant, Liggett Group, is now owned by Miami-based Brooke Group Ltd.
The company was once the country's third-largest cigarette maker with more than 30 percent of the U.S. tobacco market and more than 3,000 Durham employees. It sold about 1.3 percent of the total cigarettes shipped in the United States in 1998, according to records filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
In 1996, Liggett became the first tobacco company to settle a smoking-related lawsuit brought by five states for Medicaid-covered medical treatment of smokers. The company's capitulation broke ranks with the rest of the industry and opened the door for documents damaging to the companies' case reaching the hands of state and federal officials.
From staff and wire reports.
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