In Fort Smith, Whirlpool Ad About Jobs 'Here at Home' Stings

Whirlpool Corp., which closed its factory in Fort Smith earlier this year leaving 800 jobless, is touting itself a champion of domestic manufacturing in an ad in the Tulsa World newspaper, much to the chagrin of nearby Arkansans.

According to The City Wire in Fort Smith, the full-page in the Oklahoma newspaper touts the company's commitment to creating U.S. jobs with the tagline, "Building the best in the world right here at home."

Across the border in Fort Smith and elsewhere in Arkansas, that ad isn't sitting well:

Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders, who retired from Whirlpool, was not reluctant to comment on Whirlpool’s ad.

“I think they left out some words. After that last sentence, after the part about ‘what makes this country great,’ they need to add, ‘except in Fort Smith, Arkansas,” Sanders said.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe said Whirlpool’s commitment to keeping jobs in the U.S. is “not the experience we’ve seen with our workforce in Fort Smith,” said Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe.

Whirlpool announced in October 2011 that it would permanently shutter the 45-year-old manufacturing plant in Fort Smith after years of whittling away the workforce there and sending jobs to other factories, including one in Mexico.

The company, based in Benton Harbor, Mich., said production at the Fort Smith plant would shift to its other North American sites, with trash compactor production moving to Ottawa, Ohio; built-in refrigerator production moving to Amana, Iowa; and side-by-side refrigerators moving to Ramos Arizpe, Mexico.

The announcement came as the company also cut 5,000 jobs companywide, part of a cost-cutting effort.

The plant closure left a gaping hole in the Fort Smith economy and a significant piece of commercial real estate empty. Filling that 1.2 million-SF plant will be a challenge, and Whirlpool has so far been unsuccessful in its attempts to sell it.

Still, as our own Chris Bahn reported yesterday, Fort Smith is working hard to move on. Tim Allen, the COO of the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber is actively involved with 12 projects, including three companies based internationally, that are interested in moving to the region.

"All of the 12 have made it beyond what I would call a 'Tier One' level," Allen said. "We’re in the second and third level with some of these in negotiations for Fort Smith. … We're ending the year on a pretty good note."

Fort Smith has traditionally been a manufacturing community, but Allen indicates that economic development leaders are looking beyond that sector, seeking "white collar, regional headquarters" as well.

And there have been successes, including the recent Walther Arms announcement, and the city's ongoing efforts to build its riverfront. City leaders know that while anyone can buy a newspaper advertisement, the bigger reward is landing on the front page with a real comeback story.