The town of Garner in Wake County is preparing to lose its largest employer, ConAgra Foods. The company employed about 600 people in its Slim Jim plant there until the summer of 2009 when a fatal natural gas explosion killed four works and injured 67. But instead of rebuilding the plant where the explosion took place, ConAgra announced last year that it would be cheaper to close its Garner plant and move its operation to Ohio.
Long-time ConAgra worker Bernard Corey moved to the Garner area from Little Washington 17 years ago to work for ConAgra Foods. He says that since the announcement of the plant closure, a lot of workers say they want to do something different: “A lot of people have been there 35, 40 years, 15-20 years, so it would be a good experience to move on.”
ConAgra plans to lay off its last 430 workers by the end of May. But it does plan on leaving behind more than an empty plant with a large hole in its side. When ConAgra announced its departure, it donated the facility and land to Garner, along with three-million dollars to help market the site. That money was used to help set up the Garner Economic Development Corporation, the first time the town has had such a marketing tool since the 1980's.
Bruce Andrews retired from the state Commerce Department and now sits on the board of the newly formed economic development corporation. He says there’s been some interest in the 106-acre site where ConAgra sits, but no viable offers yet.
The property is supposed to be deeded over to the Garner Economic Development Corporation by the end of the year or early next year. Long-time business owner Leigh Hudson, who runs Hudson’s Hardware and Outdoor Equipment, says Garner has had a tendency to grow the right businesses at the right time – bucking the bad economy.
"ConAgra has been around a long time," says Hudson, "probably the largest employer here for quite a while. But this whole area is transitioning now into more high tech, more pharmaceutical, more health related industries. I think Garner will be fine."
A lot of people seem to think that too. The 2010 Census puts Garner at about 26-thousand residents – a jump of 45-percent in the past decade.
Earlier this week, Tennessee-based Strategic Behavioral Health announced it plans to build a 12-million dollar youth treatment center in the town’s Greenfield Business Park. The average salary for the Strategic Behavioral Health jobs is 50-thousand dollars, and the move would bring 250 jobs. Many of the positions will be for nurses and specialized social workers, but Mayor Ronnie Williams says he’s optimistic some ConAgra workers could find work there.
Williams has been the mayor of Garner for six years – in charge during the recession and now the closing of ConAgra. He welcomes the news from Strategic Behavioral Health and is optimistic for the future of the town. He believes that during the time it takes for Strategic Behavioral Health to construct its new facility, workers would be able to re-train and possibly land jobs at the new facility.