An aerial picture of the plant, taken in 1972.
An aerial picture of the plant, taken in 1972.

Evansville Courier & Press staff report

Evansville's Whirlpool factory, which has employed several generations of Tri-Staters and once gave backing to the city's claim as "Refrigerator Capital of the World," will close next year, leaving at least 1,100 people unemployed as production moves to Mexico.

Whirlpool hourly employees Toni Bryant, left, Nancy McFedtridge, middle, and Patricia Sandefur expressed shock to the shutdown news as they left the plant Friday. "I love my job at Whirlpool...I didn't think it was leaving me," Sandefur said tearfully.

Employees were informed of the decision in a meeting this morning with Al Holaday, the company's vice president for North American Manufacturing Operations. The workers were then sent home for the day, with pay, to mull the future.

Jill Saletta, a spokeswoman for Whirlpool, said the plant will close in "mid-2010," though no firm date has been set.

Company officials cited global economic conditions as well as a decline in demand for the freezer-topped refrigerators produced here as reasons for closure of the 1.7-million-square-foot factory.

It was news that stunned many of the workers, though the company has been steadily shaving jobs over the past few years.

"I've kind of just felt personally like it was coming," said Paul Britt, a 32-year-old Henderson, Ky., native who has worked for the company since 2001. "A lot of the old-timers, people who have been here for a while, they've been saying for 50 years this place was going to Mexico ... but nobody really believes it."

Britt, who said he makes $16.79 per hour working on the production line, called his wife from the meeting "as soon as I heard the word 'closure'."

"I called her before she heard about it from someone else," he said.

Still in limbo are 300 other jobs, as Whirlpool determines what to do with a related development center also housed at the facility.

During the meeting, each employee was given a handout sheet that offered reasons for the closure.

"It is a with a heavy heart that we announced the decision to close our Evansville plant," the handout reads. "This business decision is the result of a global study and is not a reflection of our employees or their work performance."

The handout said the closure would occur in phases, with completion in mid-2010.

One employee, 46-year-old Robert Gross of Mount Carmel, Ill., said employees had heard rumors that the plant would close for many years, but that employees were still stunned and upset that the company is moving the jobs to Mexico.

"You guys are making a lot of money, but you guys are sending our jobs to Mexico. It's just not right." Gross said he told a company official.

It will be, by far, the largest blow the current recession has dealt to Southwestern Indiana's economic infrastructure. Vanderburgh and its neighboring counties had been affected less than counties farther north in the state. As of July, unemployment in Vanderburgh County stood at 8.2 percent, while most counties in northern Indiana were well into double digits.

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