BARBERTON — Menda Ramsey, the owner of the small Coffee Pot diner downtown, remembers when the Magic City was hopping with manufacturing jobs.

There was Ohio Brass, Seiberling Rubber, Rockwell Manufacturing, Sun Rubber, PPG and Babcock & Wilcox.

Ohio Brass, Rockwell, Sun and Seiberling are long gone, while PPG is a shadow of what it used to be.

And now, B&W, which makes and services coal-fired power plant boilers, pollution control technology and more and is the largest employer in the city, announced this week that it's moving to Akron, taking about 600 jobs from Barberton and delivering another psychological blow to a proud community that many residents admit is struggling to adapt to a new economy.

Ramsey, who has owned the Second Street Northwest diner since 2002, said her customers are scared — unsure what the future holds for the city of about 26,500 people. What does it mean for the tax base? How will it affect the redevelopment efforts downtown? And how long will a hulking manufacturing facility sit vacant on South Van Buren Avenue?

The silver lining, if there is one, Ramsey and others say, is that at least the jobs are staying local instead of moving out of the area or disappearing altogether. B&W also is relocating jobs from Copley Township and Charlotte, N.C., to the Akron site.

"We'll see what happens," Ramsey said. "We've survived so far."

Her sister, LeAnn Greene, who works at the family-run diner as a manager, interjected, summing up the fears of many residents by saying, "I don't want to see it turn into a ghost town."

Riding high

Before the B&W announcement, Barberton had been riding a wave of positive news. Two craft breweries — Ignite and Magic City — have opened downtown, drawing new and regular visitors. BWX Technologies Inc., a B&W spinoff, announced an $82 million expansion in the city. And snack fruit company Peaceful Fruits, which makes fruit strips, is moving from Akron into the former Burger King on East Tuscarawas Avenue.

Late September also is a time of great joy in the community with the buildup to the annual Mum Fest — a two-day event that begins Saturday. The large festival circles Lake Anna and draws anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 people to the community to gaze at flowers, visit artisans, munch on festival foods and watch water-ski shows on the lake.

The timing of the B&W announcement wasn't lost on Hannah Gerbec, who owns Aunt Hannah's Antiques downtown with her mother, Debbie Gerbec.

"We can't have all happiness," Hannah Gerbec said.

Emotions

Ruthann Anderson, program director of counseling and human development and an associate professor at Walsh University in North Canton, said it's normal for residents and business leaders to go through a variety of emotions in the wake of such devastating news.

B&W, which was founded in 1867, has been in Barberton since 1906. It's the type of company that has touched nearly every life in the city. It seems as if everyone in Barberton either worked at the company at one point or had a relative or friend who worked there.

"You're going to be in shock and then typically you're going to be angry and then you're going to grieve," Anderson said. "People who love their community are going to be concerned about what this kind of loss tends to do to a community and we tend to love our hometowns."

Barberton is far from unique in facing the loss of a major, longtime manufacturer.

North Canton was devastated when the Hoover Co. closed in 2007. Anderson, who joined Walsh in 2009, recalled driving past the vacant building. The Hoover campus now has been turned into shops, offices, apartments and industrial space.

"I know how wonderful it is to see it now and the improvements in town," Anderson said. "It looks like it's alive again. But it took time. ... It generally seems to take some time for a community to find its feet again."

City impact

Ten years ago, B&W employed 1,371 workers in Barberton. The city has watched the company downsize ever since.

"Barberton is already a struggling community," said Debbie Gerbec, who worked at B&W for eight years as a secretary.

Barberton took in $1.8 million in withholding tax last year from the company — accounting for 20 percent of its income tax collections. The second-biggest payer was BWX Technologies at $1.3 million.

The city will benefit from a complicated tax-sharing agreement with Akron for five years. Barberton offers a full income tax credit to city residents, meaning it ultimately will lose all revenue from those who work in Akron.

Barberton's income tax rate is 2.25 percent, while the Akron rate is 2.5 percent.

Barberton Finance Director Jeremy Flaker said the city hasn't analyzed the financial impact, but knows that it will be significant.

Community impact

Each day at lunchtime, some B&W employees walk across the Robinson Bridge, making their way from the manufacturing plant into downtown to eat and shop.

That customer pipeline will dry up.

"Hopefully, they will be loyal customers and come back," said Paula Tangenberg, a bookseller at the Snowball Bookshop on West Tuscawaras Avenue.

She's more concerned about the restaurants and what it means for the downtown revitalization efforts. The downtown — while it has two breweries, a movie theater, arts theater and coffee shop — still is filled with many vacant and rundown storefronts.

Denny Gray, owner of the nationally recognized Al's Quality Market and Al's Corner Restaurant on Second Street Northwest, sees the B&W employee badges on people when they come into his market and restaurant, which specialize in Hungarian and ethnic foods.

He's not too concerned about the impact.

"It'll probably faze us a little," he admitted. "But the sky's not falling."

He prefers to see the other attractions in the city that will continue to draw people to the community. And, he added, it's only 600 people out of a population of 26,500.

But Karl Hiss, who runs Hiss Bakery on Second Street Northwest, is concerned. B&W employees visit his shop on their way to work or on the way home.

"I'm going to lose a lot of customers," said Hiss, who has worked at the store since he was 14. "Less people in front of the street is less people in the store."

How long vacant?

Richard Brown Jr. runs the Rich Cuts Barbershop on South Van Buren Avenue just down the street from B&W.

"It was shocking news to me," he said. "It's going to affect businesses and restaurants. I know it's going to be a big hit because they are one of the big employers in Barberton."

He hopes a new tenant or tenants can be found quickly.

The five-building campus will be purchased, redeveloped and repurposed by Industrial Realty Group and Industrial Commercial Properties — the same group that redeveloped the former Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. headquarters where B&W is moving.

Scott Robinson lives on East Robinson Road and can see the B&W facility from his front porch. He doesn't want to see the building sit vacant for long, either.

"It's going to hurt Barberton," he said. "It really does suck."

 

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.