First Posted: 1/15/2009
LUMBERTON — The building stands empty, devoid of the hustle and noise of production — and the satisfaction that comes from punching out and collecting a paycheck after a hard week’s work.
At its peak, Lumberton Dye and Finishing employed 180 workers who worked three shifts a day, seven days a week, 12 months a year. By the time it closed its doors for good on June 27, employment had dropped to 75 and the company was barely able to keep one shift a day running.
“I’d been expecting it for a couple of years,” said General Manager William Perry, who learned of the closing on June 1. “We had three big customers and about half a dozen smaller ones, but it just wasn’t enough business to hang on.”
Perry, who stayed on an extra month to tie up loose ends and ship out the remaining dyed fabric in the warehouse, left the company for good on Thursday. When he came to work exactly 30 years earlier, on July 31, 1978, the 160,000-square-foot plant had only been in operation for seven months.
“I was the fourth person to come on board and I loved every minute of my time here,” he said, sitting in an office with a desk, computer, two chairs and a row of empty filing cabinets against one wall. “I had some good people come through this place. We were like family.”
The story of Lumberton Dye and Finishing’s demise mirrors the story of Lumberton and Robeson County’s massive hemorrhage of thousands of textile jobs over the past 20 years, with cheap imports, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the export of American jobs to Mexico and overseas all playing the villian.
“In our heyday, we couldn’t dye the fabric fast enough,” Perry said. “The foreign companies and Bill Clinton took it all away.”
Foreign competition wasn’t the only problem. Lumberton Dye and Finishing was also the city’s third largest user of water, consuming as much as 450,000 gallons a day at an average cost of $32,500 a month. When Lumberton’s two biggest water users, Outer Banks and Fun-Tees, closed in 2006, the city lost $1.4 million in water and sewer revenues. To help make up the shortfall, the city raised rates by 6 percent, cutting an additional $24,000 from Lumberton Dye and Finishing’s already razor-thin bottom line.
That same year Cliff Shumate, president of Kentucky Textiles, which owned Lumberton Dye and Finishing, decried Lumberton’s plan to raise the rates in a letter to Mayor Raymond Pennington that proved prophetic.
“As evidenced by recent textile facility closings in the Lumberton area, gross revenues at Lumberton Dye and Finishing have been negatively affected by foreign competition,” Shumate wrote in the letter dated Oct. 11, 2006. “A water rate increase at this time would seriously jeopardize our ability to continue operating at a profitable level.”
Two weeks later Shumate said the rate hike wouldn’t cause the plant to close, but noted that salary increases and expansion plans had to be shelved. He accused the city of being hostile to businesses, but Pennington said that was not the case.
Linda Oxendine, director of public services for Lumberton, said losing Lumberton Dye and Finishing as a customer will cost the city $410,000 a year. City Manager Wayne Horne said some of that loss will be offset by the 10 percent increase in water and sewer rates implemented July 1, and by Kayser-Roth, which will be coming on-line with additional demand later this year as a result of a plant expansion.