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Metal Tech trims 20 jobs

MURFREESBORO – “I didn’t lay off 20 employees,” Ray Felton, who with his son, Brock, owns Metal Tech of Murfreesboro, said Thursday afternoon of reports that the plant had laid off a number of its employees. “I laid off 20 family members. It was the toughest day of my life.”

Before the layoff, Metal Tech employed 74.

“We’ve been fighting it,” Felton said, adding that the firm, which historically has seen most of its work come from within a 60-mile radius, has been “looking for work anywhere we can find it.”

Felton said there is no danger of his company dying, but he added, “We realize that what we’ve been doing may not be what we’re doing a year from now.”

The company’s traditional customers have been paper mills and Nucor, which has a nearby Cofield plant.

Felton said he hopes not only to be able eventually to re-hire those who received their final checks Thursday, “but more besides.”

But, he said, “There’s nothing on the radar right now.”

Felton stressed that none of those laid off lost their jobs because of any fault of their own.

“There wasn’t anything any of them did wrong,” he said, “and we appreciate the support and the efforts of every single employee, and the understanding of those today.”

Bill Early, Hertford County Economic Development Director, said that, while the layoff at Metal Tech is “very sad and disturbing to me,” the county’s employment picture is still more positive than that of many other areas.

“Ray told me that was 28 percent of his work force,” Early said, “and they really are like members of his family to him.

“This is indicative of the economic times we are in,” he continued, “and there is little we can do to control the national and international economy, but while in December of 2008, unemployment went up quite a bit, if you look at Hertford County, its unemployment rate was 8.3 percent and that’s lower that the state’s 8.7 percent. And in Bertie County in December, the rate was 9.8 percent and in Northampton it was 10.2 percent.

“Also,” Early said, “the total number of persons employed in Hertford County was 9,446 and that’s the largest number employed in the four counties (Hertford, Bertie, Gates and Northampton).”

Early said the best way to view the impact might be to look at a 12-month comparison of jobs lost in the four counties.

“During that 12-month period,” he said, “Hertford County had the lowest job loss at 177. Bertie had 336, Gates 282 and Northampton 557.”

“To me,” he continued, it looks like Hertford is weathering this storm a little bit better than others, but I say that very guardedly.

“We still have three large projects that are active and we’re putting forth a very strong effort to expedite those projects.”

The three, he said, are expansion of the Nucor operation, expansion of the Rivers Correction facility, and construction of the Decker International Biomass Powerplant.

“We’re very fortunate,” Early said, “that those projects are still on go. All of them would have several hundred construction workers in here” and that, he said, would have a positive impact on retail sales and thus the economy of the region.

“We’re looking for all three to begin construction in 2009,” he said.

Murfreesboro Mayor Lynn Johnson, upon learning of the layoff, said, “I know this has been the hardest thing in the world for Ray to do. I know him that well.”

“I am deeply concerned to hear this,” she said, adding, “I’m sure I know many of these people and this is just really disturbing.”

The mayor said the Metal Tech layoff “is a sign of the economic times in which we find ourselves,” and noted that the Murfreesboro Town Council has itself “put a freeze on our expenditures” due to the current economic climate.

Cathy Davison, Murfreesboro town administrator, said the Metal Tech layoff “will have an impact. They’re one of our largest employers, outside of the university.

“But,” she continued, “They’re in the same situation the town is in… We’re all going to have to tighten our belts. We’re going to have to look toward the future, but be fiscally responsible in the meantime.

She said Felton did not exaggerate how he feels about the employees laid off Thursday.

“He knows every single one of his employees,” she said. “I went to their Christmas party and he said something personal about every one of them. It really is a family.”

She also said that, because she knows Metal Tech’s owner, she believes the firm will come out of the current situation even stronger than it was.

“Anytime you have to lay off good folks, it’s painful,” said Dell Aycock, president of the Murfreesboro Chamber of Commerce, “and in a town like Murfreesboro, it strikes a little deeper. You don’t want to see people you know in a bind. We’re a small town and we care. It hurts every one of us.”

But Aycock continued, “We’re looking ahead to better times. We’ve got to weather this storm, but it is just a storm. It’s not going to last forever.”