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Plant City's Smithfield meat plant to close Sept. 1

Trucks enter the Smithfield Foods factory near Plant City on Tuesday. A 63 percent drop in the company’s stock has led to measures to cut back, and the factory is one of six to close.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Trucks enter the Smithfield Foods factory near Plant City on Tuesday. A 63 percent drop in the company’s stock has led to measures to cut back, and the factory is one of six to close.

PLANT CITY — Outside the Smithfield Foods factory, the smell of smoked ham has greeted workers at its gates for almost half a century.

In this town of 34,000, built on railroad tracks and rooted in agriculture and industry, the smell has always meant prosperity — someone's manning the machines, someone's spicing the meat, someone's clocking in for one more day on the job.

That stability is gone.

Smithfield Foods, one of Plant City's largest employers, announced Tuesday that it would close the factory in September, eliminating 760 jobs from a town that has already lost two major employers in the past year.

The workers, like the rest of us, had heard variations of this story in cities big and small across the country. This week they became a part of it:

Receptionist Brenda Gonzalez, the 29-year-old single mother who hasn't told her children yet.

Vernon Smith, the 71-year-old who used to tell his wife he'd stop working when his toes were turned up.

And Ryan Shearl, the 30-year-old who wonders what opportunities await after blending hot-dog meat.

Through the window of his pickup, as he entered his afternoon shift, he summed up his feelings in a word:

"Scared."

• • •

In 1964, Plant City was carving an industrial park out of land owned by the Hillsborough Aviation Authority. The Lykes Brothers were adding to their empire, which already consisted of citrus, cattle and cargo.

The city, said historian Gil Gott, was thrilled to sell them a big piece of dirt on the industrial park's western end where they could build a meatpacking plant.

The factory opened in 1967, and became a town institution. Everyone in the close-knit community knew someone who worked there, said Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham. To them, he said, it was a "point of pride."

As a kid, Shelby Bender didn't know anyone besides Lykes made hot dogs.

In 1996, the name changed, but the smell lingered. Smithfield Foods, the nation's largest pork producer and packaged meat processor, swallowed the Tampa-based Lykes Meat Group and its factory.

Workers kept their jobs.

• • •

Now, amid an overall slump in the meat industry in a year when Smithfield's stock plummeted 63 percent, those in charge have changed their approach. They call it the "Pork Group Restructuring Plan."

Instead of buying up its hard-pressed competitors, Smithfield will consolidate. Seven independently-operating companies will combine into three main units.

Along with the Plant City operation, five other factories — in Virginia, North Carolina, Kansas, Ohio and Nebraska — will close. The earliest will shut down in April. The latest, in December.

Plant City will start closing departments in June, and the lights will go out by Sept. 1.

A fraction of salaried employees will be offered transfers, said Smithfield spokesman Dennis Pittman. Most of the plant's workers are paid by the hour.

Ed Chambers, with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said he'll bargain for severance, pensions and health insurance benefits.

Mayor Rick Lott said finding the workers jobs will be a priority for the city's chamber of commerce. With the factory going up for sale, perhaps a new company will come in and absorb all the lost jobs.

"That," Lott said, "is our best hope."

• • •

In 2008, major Plant City employers, including Bill Heard Chevrolet, Pilgrim's Pride and Albertsons, laid off more than 300 workers.

Now, people walk from business to business in Plant City, asking for jobs.

At Brightway Insurance, Darren Hosmer sees at least two people come in each week seeking work, and even more cutting back on their car insurance, a trickle-down consequence for his business.

And at Shelby Bender's fertilizer store, someone offered to sweep her floor for $8.

Sunshine State Dairy tried to help. Tuesday morning, the food processing plant called Smithfield to say it had jobs available. Maybe four or five, said plant manager Larry Plair.

Not 760.

Several workers didn't show up at Smithfield on Tuesday, said Maria Lopez, who unloads trucks. They heard a plastic factory down the street might be hiring.

But others came. In just one hour Tuesday afternoon, Smithfield's churning smokestacks lured in two outsiders looking for work.

They hadn't heard yet.

Times staff writer Drew Harwell and researcher John Martin and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

By the numbers: Smithfield

170,000: Size, in square feet, of the Plant City factory

760: Jobs to be lost when it closes.

1,800: Jobs Smithfield will cut nationwide.

1,000: Workers nationwide to be offered transfers.

$55M: Estimated savings Smithfield's plan will bring for fiscal year 2010.

$125M: Money Smithfield expects to save by 2011.

8: Percent its shares dropped in afternoon trading Tuesday.

$12B: Smithfield's annual sales

Sources: Associated Press, Smithfield, and Mayor Rick Lott

Plant City's Smithfield meat plant to close Sept. 1 02/17/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 18, 2009 11:31pm]

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