West Texas city still reeling from plant shutdown

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by MONIKA DIAZ

WFAA

Posted on August 21, 2013 at 10:26 PM

Updated Wednesday, Aug 21 at 10:33 PM

PLAINVIEW, Texas — In the heart of West Texas sits a city with deep roots in agriculture. From cotton to cattle, Plainview's pride comes from the blue collar hands that built it.

"It's a small town," said Plainview Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kevin Carter. "Everybody knows everybody."

This is a small town family of around 22,000 strong... a family trying to hold on.

In January, the city faced one of its darkest days.

Its largest employer, the Cargill meat processing plant, closed its doors because of the drought and a tight cattle supply.

Twenty-three hundred people lost their jobs.

"It was like getting punched in the gut," Carter said.

Six months later, the dust of the blow hasn't settled.

"It's tough to see it like this," said Johnny Rodriguez, a former Cargill employee.

Rodriguez worked at the plant for 41 years. We interviewed him outside the shuttered facility.

As he stared at the empty parking lot, Rodriguez remembered the good times he had at his old job... but the silence also broke his heart.

"There's no life here," he said. "It's sad."

For Rodriguez, the plant is also a reminder of the worries he's now dealing with. At age 61, married and with two children in college, he's thinking about driving 18-wheelers to make ends meet.

"I know I am kind of old, but I gotta find work," he said.

His former co-workers are trying to find work too.

About two miles away at the New Opportunities Center, John Gatewood searched the job ads online. The center — operated by Workforce Solutions South Plains — is dedicated to helping Cargill employees find a new beginning.

For Gatewood, a father of two, it hasn't been easy. He says no job will pay him what he used to make — $19 an hour with benefits. Cargill employees belonged to a union.

"The jobs around here are minimum wage with no benefits," Gatewood said. "It's hard to swallow. This is home."

According to Cargill, 180 people who worked at the Plainview plant transferred to other facilities.

Federal grant money — around $2 million — will assist those workers who stayed behind with job training and other related services.

Workforce Solutions employees are also worried about the unemployed.

"There are no replacement jobs for them," said Workforce Solutions South Plains CEO Martin Aguirre. "There is no work like this in the community. It was a union plant."

Stacy Bull, an 11-year Cargill employee, is going back to school, hoping a new start as an auto mechanic will keep her in Plainview.

"I asked God every night, 'What is the next step?' My mom, my kids... I have three nieces and nephews, that's what worries me the most," Bull said. "I have supported them all my life."

While many families are staying in the city, the concern that some might still leave lingers. City leaders are keeping an eye on the ripple effect of the plant's closure. They worry about what might happen when Cargill employees stop receiving unemployment benefits in three months.

"They are going to go to zero income, and then it will really be crunch time," Aguirre said.

Businesses, schools, and neighborhoods are waiting to see if there will be more of an impact on jobs, tax revenues and families. "For sale" signs are already becoming a common sight in front of homes.

"It's going to be from the top to the bottom as far as what we are going to feel," said Kevin Carter, who lives in Plainview and works for the Chamber of Commerce. "We just don't know what that impact is just yet."

City leaders are working on trying to recruit new companies to the region. Also, they are discussing building a new business park, but that project is years away.

For now, the hope is that Plainview — home for so many — survives the economic troubles ahead.

"I think we owe it to the people who live here," Carter said.

People like Johnny Rodriguez, who prays every day for a better future.

"I'm going to stick it out," he said. "It's going to be all right."

E-mail mdiaz@wfaa.com


Cargill Inc. spokesman Mike Martin in Wichita, Kansas answered questions about the Plainview processing plant shutdown:

Q: How many Plainview workers transferred to other Cargill facilities?

A: 180 total — 140 hourly and 40 salaried employees.

Q: Is there a chance that the Plainview facility might reopen in the future?

A: Cargill has retained the plant and the property it sits on, and is preserving it for potential future use. However, the current U.S. beef cattle herd is at the lowest level since 1952, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not expect the herd to increase in number before 2015. Given that there is still beef processing overcapacity in the U.S., even if the current drought situation in Texas and the southern plain states breaks, the potential reopening of Plainview is a number of years away.


 

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