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For Oakland, Bausch & Lomb Closing Like Death in Family

February 6, 1996

OAKLAND, Md. (AP) _ John and Betty George bought a camping trailer last year with dreams of vacation adventures and early retirement from the Bausch & Lomb plant where they both work.

Now the trailer is for sale and the Georges fear they’ll have to leave their comfortable three-bedroom mountain home near Oakland for good because the plant is closing.

``This year, we had planned to go to the Nashville area,″ said George, a lifelong resident of Garrett County.

``Now we might have to go to Nashville to look for a job,″ Mrs. George said quietly.

Their shattered plans are reflected in hundreds of homes in the western Maryland county, which was stunned by Bausch & Lomb Inc.’s announcement Jan. 10 it will close its sunglasses plant by year-end, eliminating 600 jobs. The company is shifting production to San Antonio.

Bausch & Lomb’s departure will leave an enormous cavity in the area’s economy. It is the largest private employer in Garrett County and its sprawling red brick plant near Oakland has provided good-paying jobs for two generations of workers since it opened in 1971.

Mettiki Coal Corp., with just under 300 workers, is the second-biggest employer.

Oakland’s plight is representative of what is going on in communities around the country. The wave of corporate downsizing to reduce costs has resulted in many lost jobs in recent years.

Garrett County already has a 12 percent unemployment rate, more than double the statewide rate. Most of the plant’s workers live in Oakland, population 1,700.

``If you lose 600 of your manufacturing jobs, that’s about 50 percent of our manufacturing jobs,″ said Jim Hinebaugh, Garrett County’s economic development director.

He estimates the $18 million to $20 million Bausch & Lomb spends annually on payroll and local purchases is multiplied three to five times as the money works its way through the area’s economy.

County officials are working with state and federal lawmakers to lure other companies to the area. Hinebaugh said they’re hoping for more wood-products manufacturers _ a natural fit with the local timber industry _ and more tourism, already a thriving business around scenic Deep Creek Lake.

But tourism doesn’t bring the sort of steady business that local customers provide stores in downtown Oakland, 11 miles south of the lakeside resorts.

``We bank on the locals to support us,″ said Jan Shafer, co-owner with her husband Gary of Englander’s Pharmacy, a fixture in Oakland’s eight-block business district.

Even businesses around Deep Creek Lake say they rely heavily on local trade.

``With Bausch & Lomb, I have quite a bit of commuter traffic going through,″ said Greig Johnson, owner of a grocery store and pizzeria near the lakeside town of McHenry. ``It will definitely have an impact.″

Bausch & Lomb, which announced a $3.36 million fourth-quarter loss last week, has encountered more competition in the disposable contact-lens and designer-sunglasses markets. The company’s decision to close its sunglasses plant in Oakland is part of a three-year strategy to eliminate $50 million in expenses.

In Oakland, Bausch & Lomb will be missed as a good neighbor as well as an employer. The company donated thousands of dollars to the local hospital and community college, contributed heavily to a Christmas charity program and sponsored youth athletic teams.

``They’d never turn anybody down,″ Mrs. Shafer said.

Which may be one reason John George still speaks of his employer with pride instead of bitterness, often repeating that their sunglasses are the best in America.

George, 43, who has worked at the plant since graduating from high school in 1971, wouldn’t disclose his salary but said wages there average $30,000 a year. He said he hopes to find another job that pays as much but doesn’t expect to find it in Garrett County.

``We’re in our 40s and that’s a big concern,″ he said. ``I’ve been told that when you get into your 40s it’s hard unless you’ve got some kind of trade or skill or education _ which I don’t have.″

He expects to get about six months’ severance pay, enough, perhaps, to buy time to find another job or learn a skill, he said.

``I always said in the past I’d like to be a plumber,″ he said.

Mrs. George has worked at the plant since 1987. Two of her sons-in-law also work there.

She said she’d like to run a day-care center, but expects she’ll have to move to find work.

``I don’t want to draw unemployment,″ she said. ``I want a job. I want to get up in the morning and go someplace.″

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