By Dan Shaw, Evansville Courier & Press

Evansville officials have a two-pronged plan for responding to Whirlpool's announcement Friday that it will close its local manufacturing facility.

First, they will send a team to the plant to help the 1,100 employees who are losing their jobs find new work and apply for unemployment benefits.

In the meantime, they will assemble an incentive package in an attempt to persuade Whirlpool to keep 300 other jobs, mostly engineers, in Evansville.

Those people work in the company's product design center, which works on various models of refrigerators.

Greg Wathen, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Coalition of Southwest Indiana, said at least two other states are trying to compete for those jobs.

He declined to speculate on whether Whirlpool would consider also sending that work to Mexico, as it is doing with the Evansville manufacturing lines. Whirlpool employs some engineers overseas, Wathen said.

"Quite frankly, there is lots of competition for these positions," he said.

Wathen declined to say what incentives local and state officials will offer Whirlpool. They would like to have a package assembled and submitted by the middle of September.

Whirlpool representatives have told him they will make a decision as early as the end of September.

Helping the 1,100 employees who will be out of work by the time the plant closes in the middle of 2010 is a high priority. Wathen said it will take 12 to 18 months for those losses to be offset by new job opportunities elsewhere in the local economy.

Wathen estimated Whirlpool's decision will lead to tens of millions of dollars of lost wages and benefits once the ripple effect hits suppliers of the plant. And that doesn't include the property taxes local governments no longer will be able to collect on equipment used at the plant.

Mayor Jonathan Weinzapfel is confident at least some of the affected employees can find jobs in the Tri-State. He noted that Berry Plastics is expanding its local factory and has plans to hire 360 workers over the next seven years.

For those who struggle, help will be available from a number of agencies.

A rapid response team assembled for that purpose will include the Economic Development Coalition, Chamber of Commerce of Southwest Indiana, Central Labor Council of Southern Indiana and the United Way of Southwestern Indiana.

The team will ask for assistance from Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., as well as 8th District U.S. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, D-Ind.

Wathen said it is a misconception that manufacturing is dying in the Tri-State. He noted the strength of Mead Johnson, Toyota and Berry, among others.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13,305 people in Vanderburgh County worked in manufacturing in 2008, which was about 12 percent of total employed workers.

On average, they earned $52,195 in wages that year.

But not all economic statistics are rosy. The county's unemployment rate has crept upward during the past year, hitting 8.3 percent in June.

For those now joining the ranks of the unemployed, getting the training needed for another line of work will be a priority.

Ivy Tech Community College's Evansville campus is one place to turn for help. After a layoff in late 2006, about 185 former Whirlpool workers started classes at Ivy Tech, and some of them earned degrees in May.

Rachel Rawlinson, marketing and communications director at Ivy Tech, said the community college wants to continue that assistance.

"We certainly will start working on what we can do as a college to help them get education and back in the work force," she said.

Staff writer John Martin contributed to this report.

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