Last week, the economy of neighboring Jenkins County was dealt another devastating blow when MI Windows and Doors, Inc. announced plans to close its Millen window fabrication plant by the end of December.
“Our decision to close the Millen facility has been extremely difficult,” said Matt Desoto, president of the eastern division of the company. “Anytime we affect team members and their families by eliminating jobs it comes with much concern and anxiety.”
MI Windows and Doors, one of the largest manufacturers of vinyl, aluminum and cellular windows and doors in the country, is the third major manufacturer in Millen to either cut its workforce or shut its doors in the last 14 months. Jockey International closed its manufacturing plant for good this past September after a massive layoff the year before, and Cavalier Home Builders recently laid off over 100 employees. Between the three, estimates are that more than 600 jobs have been lost in Jenkins County in a little over a year. In a county with an estimated population of 8,700 residents, that is a significant number of jobs.
Joel Martin, a transition coordinator with the Georgia Department of Labor in Millen, estimates that one third to one half of the labor force in Jenkins County have lost their jobs due to the recent plant closings and layoffs.
“I feel for this city and this county,” Martin said. “This is a town of very good people and a good workforce. It is an extremely tough time for this community.”
Martin said the Georgia Department of Labor opened a transition office in Millen when the Jockey plant closed in September.
“We are here to help residents transition into a different job,” he said. “Some need additional education and training, and some just need help finding another job. Right now, it looks as if these folks are going to have go elsewhere to find jobs.”
Residents have been reeling since MI Windows and Doors went public with its plans for closing the plant this past Monday.
“This is like a death,” said Carol Jean Cates, Jenkins County administrator. “We heard that there were going to be some layoffs, but we did not think that they would close completely. It is a very sad day for our community. We don’t seem to be getting very good news these days.”
Desoto said his company really tried to keep its Millen plant in operation, but the downturn in residential construction in Florida forced their hand.
“The Florida housing market has become so weak that we simply aren’t getting in enough orders for product to keep the plant operational,” he said. “This plant is a casualty of a very weak housing market. We do not intend to replace these jobs in other plants or move this production out of the country.”
No one was more surprised by the company’s announcement than Paula Herrington, director of the Jenkins County Chamber of Commerce and the Jenkins County Development Authority.
“I am telling you, it was really bad,” Herrington said. “It was very sudden. They flew in their corporate people last week and told everybody that they were closing the plant. It is so much in such a short period of time.”
Herrington said the county had received some grant money and marketing efforts had begun to bring in new industry, but acknowledged that the local workforce might be forced to find different types of jobs other than manufacturing.
“It looks like we are going to have to train our residents for higher tech type jobs,” she said. “It appears that we are in a time of transition, and it is going to be very difficult.”
With a tough uphill battle in front of them, Herrington said the community is coming together for a prayer meeting at the Pal Theater in downtown Millen on November 25 at 3:00 p.m.
“We are gathering to pray for our community and for those that have lost their employment,” she said. “Everyone here is affected. It is your neighbor, your friend, your brother or sister. Please put us in your prayers.”
Lee Wilson is human resources director at MI Windows and Doors and its smaller sister plant. Wilson said the smaller plant, which is an extrusion plant employing 50 or so people in Millen, will remain open.
“It is a very sad day,” Wilson said. “I have been with this company for 15 years, and I was hoping this day would never come. But the building industry that we supply has been so slow that the number of orders we were getting became fewer and fewer.”
Wilson will remain with the company overseeing human resources for the extrusion plant left in operation.
“Hopefully, one day the demand will return and the plant can resume operations, but there are no plans at this time to do that.”
Cates said that she knows that the industrial closings will have a significant negative affect on the county’s commercial tax base.
“We’ve tightened our belts before, and we will tighten them again,” she said. “We certainly don’t want to lay anyone off, and we never have had to do that. We will just have to find ways to operate leaner than we ever have before.”