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Those days, however, are in the past. While Fort Smith manufacturing isn't down and out — there are still a number of big industrial employers there, including Gerber Foods, heating and air manufacturer Rheem, and electric motor manufacturer Baldor — Whirlpool was clearly a cornerstone of the local economy, and the loss has rippled through the town like a shockwave.
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders worked for Whirlpool for 32 years prior to being elected. He said the news that Whirlpool would depart was "disheartening," he said.
"I was very disappointed because we had the most efficient plant that Whirlpool had domestically, but I wasn't privy to the factors on which they made their decision."
The bright spot for Fort Smith, Sanders said, is that other companies in town are slowly beginning to add jobs, and the city continues to work with the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission on potential prospects. He said that the national economy has been so bleak that it's difficult to judge when hiring in the city will rebound, but he added that he hopes to have "an announcement or two" early next year regarding expansion and growth by current employers.
"What we hear is that nationwide there's pent-up investment dollars," Sanders said, "but companies are just holding on waiting for the tide to turn. We're hopeful that when those investment dollars start to break loose that we're in the mix."
In the communities near the former Whirlpool plant, however, the voices are not even so hopeful as that. AAA Pawn, a strip-mall shop on Highway 271 south just behind the former plant, had a shiny Whirlpool washer in its showroom on the day we visited. AAA manager Loren Throne said he has seen the effect the closure has had on his business. "We've definitely seen an increase in money going out, as opposed to money coming in," Throne said. "We get a lot of folks in here who say, 'I just need to pay a bill,' or 'I just need some gas money.' I'm sure some of them were former Whirlpool employees."
Throne said his business is down enough that the shop has had to go to alternative sources of sales, relying more on the Internet and sales at local flea markets, to stay afloat. "I still don't understand it," he said. "It's greed, if you ask me, to send jobs somewhere just to save a buck."
Next door to AAA Pawn at Nanny's Boutique thrift shop, owner Gwen Motsenbocker said she's felt the ripples from Whirlpool as well. Her late husband, Joe, worked at Whirlpool in the 1970s, and she said it was a good-paying job. While many of the appliances in her home were made at the factory and bought at annual "scratch-and-dent" sales, she vowed she'll never buy anything else the company makes. The closure, she said, has "put a hurt on Fort Smith."
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