OAKLAND, Md. – His employer might be leaving this town of 1,800 people, but Wayne Alexander is going to try his hardest to stay.
“I was bred, born and raised [here], and I’ll die here,” he said.
Alexander, a machine operator who has worked for Bausch & Lomb for more than 24 years, is one of 600 employees who were told Jan. 10 that the sunglass manufacturer would close its Oakland plant by the end of the year.
Many employees, including Alexander, hope to stay in this area because of its low crime rate, good schools and small-town friendliness. But they face an uphill battle finding employment in a town with too few jobs already.
While the November unemployment rate for Maryland was less than 5 percent, the rate for Garrett County was more than 10 percent, said a U.S. Department of Labor spokesman.
Plant manager Bedford N. “Buff” Bruno said most of the employees he has spoken with would prefer to stay put. “A big chunk of them are tied to the area,” he said. “This is where they’ve grown up and where their families are.”
Alexander said he prefers Garrett County’s slow-paced lifestyle. “You know everybody in the community. Violent crime is virtually nonexistent,” he said.
There was only one murder in the 28,000-population county in 1993 and 1994, said a state police spokesman.
Alexander said he realizes it will probably not be possible to find a job in Garrett County that matches the paycheck he is receiving. “This is probably one of the higher-paying jobs in the county, other than a coal mine,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, “I can’t see myself leaving even if I have to work two jobs.”
He is divorced with two adult children and has just built a house with a girlfriend whom he met at the plant. She has a child, age 9.
He said he has met a lot of friends at the plant and it has provided him with a good lifestyle. “So in that respect, I have a lot of respect for the lady. I’ve always referred to Bausch & Lomb as a lady. I don’t know why.”
He added: “I don’t totally blame B&L. It’s smart business to make everything under one roof.”
The Bausch & Lomb plant, which opened in 1971, is the largest private employer in Garrett County. According to Barbara Kelley, vice president of public affairs, the company is closing the plant to combine all the phases of its manufacturing process in its San Antonio, Texas, plant.
Kelley said the company chose San Antonio over Oakland because of San Antonio’s proximity to the sunbelt states where most of the company’s sunglasses are sold and because the San Antonio plant is newer and already involved in manufacturing.
Bruno, who moved to the area five months ago when he was hired by Bausch & Lomb to become plant manager, said he, like Alexander, would prefer to make the town his home even after the plant closes.
“It’s a gorgeous area,” said Bruno, noting the nearby ski slopes and Deep Creek Lake. He said Western Maryland compares favorably to many areas of the country he saw traveling as a child in a military family and then as an Army officer himself.
“There are not a lot of possibilities for me down here. But [to stay in the area] I might make a career change and do something totally different,” he said.
Bruno, who has three school-age children, said the town has excellent schools and a great quality of life.
“I am amazed at the values here, the integrity, pride, hard work, community,” he said.
Company officials said the first 70 to 80 layoffs will come sometime between April 1 and the end of July. The remaining layoffs will occur before the end of 1996.
Many families will be losing two paychecks at once. More than 40 married couples work at the plant, Bruno and others said.
“It’s the only job we ever had,” said John George, 43, who works with his wife at the plant.
George, who has worked for the company since 1971, said his goal “was to make it there and retire at an early age.”
But now, even though he is “not financially bad off,” he said he doesn’t know if he can afford to stay.
The plant’s closing will affect more than just the employees and their families. Local businesses will also feel the impact.
Becky Williams owns a restaurant and adjacent bar 1/2 mile from the plant. She built the saloon bar three years ago, but has owned the restaurant for 17 years.
Bausch & Lomb employees come to her saloon and restaurant for “lunch, dinner and on the way home,” Williams said. The shutdown will hurt her a lot, she said.
She said she has seen little anger from the employees, but has seen concern for the future. They have asked for “600 applications” for jobs in her bar, Williams said.
She said she understands why employees would want to stay in Oakland despite the poor employment outlook.
“I can go knock on somebody’s door, say, `Will you help me?’ They say, `Sure, Beck.’ ” -30-