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Plant City industry takes a hit, then bounces back

It was the biggest blow yet to Plant City's ailing economy and came as the city was reeling from hundreds of job losses the year before.

In February 2009, Smithfield Foods decided it would shutter its Plant City factory and shed close to 760 jobs by that September.

Then-City Commissioner Dan Raulerson said he thought first about the workers, many of whom had staked their lives on starting and ending their careers at Smithfield.

And why not? The factory had been a stalwart of Plant City's economy for nearly 50 years, long before Smithfield acquired the plant from the Lykes Meat Group in 1996.

"If this was not the largest employer in Plant City, it certainly was one of the largest," he said.

But an overall slump in the meat industry had Smithfield in a mood to consolidate, and along with the Plant City operation, the company closed five other plants that year.

The closure hit hard. Major Plant City employers, including Bill Heard Chevrolet, Pilgrim's Pride and Albertsons, had laid off 300 workers the year before.

"It was a tough. But with the changes in the economy, slowly but surely we're getting some new businesses in," chamber of commerce president Marion Smith said.

The city is not all the way back, but it's rebounding.

Stingray Chevrolet took over the Bill Heard lot.

Michigan-based Gordon Food Service announced in January 2010 that it was moving to the Albertsons distribution center, creating up to 350 jobs. About 250 people are employed now, and the company plans to 100 more workers within four years, a Gordon spokeswoman said.

And Highland Corp. Inc., a plastic-package maker in Mulberry, said it was opening a Plant City operation this fall. The company is expected to employ about 250 workers. For now it's unclear how many will move to Plant City and how many positions will open up.

But City Manager Gregory Horwedel is encouraged. He estimates that while close to 500 jobs have not yet been replaced since 2008 and 2009, the city's economic base seems to be diversifying.

Raulerson, who later became the mayor, agrees.

"We're not solely dependent on a meat-packing plant, so that if one of the largest employers leaves town, we won't shut down," he said.

Rich Shopes, Times staff writer

Plant City industry takes a hit, then bounces back 06/14/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 4:30am]
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