LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Whirlpool Corp. announced Thursday it will close its refrigerator plant, long the most important employer in Fort Smith, next year, putting 1,000 people out of work.
The company issued a statement blaming the closure on a decrease in demand for side-by-side refrigerators and price pressure from competitors.
The factory employed 4,600 people five years ago, but that number has declined in the poor economy and since Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Whirlpool opened a refrigerator factory in Mexico.
A number of Fort Smith-area companies that supplied the Whirlpool plant have already scaled back production or closed.
Manufacturing jobs in Fort Smith dropped from 23,322 in 2000 to 14,736 in 2009, a decline of 36.8 percent, according to a study by the Institute for Economic Advancement at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
The sharp downward trend is mirrored statewide, where nearly 86,900 manufacturing jobs disappeared in the same period, a 34.6 percent plunge.
Gov. Mike Beebe has worked to recruit higher-paying manufacturing jobs to Arkansas, and Whirlpool has been regarded in the upper tier of employers. But the state has still seen many jobs move overseas, particularly those that don't require skilled labor.
Rheem Manufacturing Co., another major Fort Smith employer, announced during the summer a plan to move 250 jobs to a plant in Mexico.
Fort Smith has landed a $100 million Mitsubishi Power Systems wind turbine plant that is to employ 300 or more people when production starts. The company could start production next year, but it is tied up in a lawsuit over its turbine design.
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