Sara Lee didn't give us a chance, officials say

- The Bryan Foods plant in West Point closes for good today.

By Dennis Seid

Daily Journal

WEST POINT - Earlier this week, workers put a fence around the Bryan Foods plant as it prepared to close for good.

Some local officials say it's a telling sign.

The facility, owned by Sara Lee Food & Beverage since 1968, will shutter operations today, two months after company officials said the plant wasn't part of their long-term plans.

"There are some open spaces on the site, and the fence is to protect the public, as well as the facility," a company spokeswoman said.

Workers have been leaving the plant, walking through the fence throughout the week as operations stopped. Some 1,200 workers are jobless, joining 400 others who were laid off in December.

When Sara Lee said in January it was closing the plant, local leaders held out hope a buyer would come in and save the plant.

Those hopes are all but dashed.

Sara Lee said it worked hard to find a buyer but couldn't.

But some area leaders say Sara Lee didn't try hard enough and put up its own fences. In fact, they claim the company hasn't been anything but a hindrance to their efforts to try to sell the area.

Criticize sale efforts

"We would take exception to their exhaustive efforts' to sell the plant," said Pete Hodo III, chairman of the West Point/Clay County Community Growth Alliance. "That plant has been in operation for 71 years and they gave us eight weeks to respond and adjust our lives without them."

Hodo said the Bryan plant contributed about 10 percent to the city's operating budget and 10-12 percent of the schools' budget. For the community to have such a short time frame to figure out what to do hasn't been easy or fair, he said.

"We take no issue with Sara Lee's decision to close the plant," he said. "I do take exception with the way things have gone about in closing the facility. We've had discussions going back four years, with us asking them to let us participate in any plans to shut down the plant. But we didn't get that."

Sara Lee officials have said the shutdown had nothing to do with performance or productivity of its workers. The decision was based on a review of the company's entire operations, and the West Point Bryan Foods plant just didn't fit into its long-term plans, they claimed.

Growth Alliance President and CEO Tim Climer agrees that the employees weren't the problem.

"They were productive, they were efficient, they were above quota from everything I heard," Climer said.

And local officials complain Sara Lee did little to work with local leaders.

The company conducted an employee job fair two weeks after the closing was announced, but got little input from the community.

"We want to retain and recruit workers here," Hodo said, "but we feel like we really haven't been given that opportunity because of what Sara Lee has done."

Contact Daily Journal business editor Dennis Seid at 678-1578 or dennis.seid@djournal.com.

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