SANFORD – Town economic officials say they will make a last-ditch effort this week to keep GE Healthcare’s Whatman plant from closing.

Les Stevens, Sanford economic development director, said he and state Economic and Community Development Commissioner John Richardson will meet with company officials sometime in the next two days to see if they can be convinced to remain open. But Stevens said he is not optimistic about changing any minds.

“I don’t think the odds are good, but you have to ask,” Stevens said.

Company officials told employees Tuesday that the plant would close at the end of next year as part of a corporate restructuring. The move is expected to throw about 225 people out of work, though the company told workers there could be some openings at its Westborough, Mass., plant.

The layoffs are the largest to be announced by a Maine company in the past year. The next-closest are the loss of 208 jobs at Katahdin Paper in Millinocket and 160 workers at Red Shield in Old Town.

GE Healthcare’s Whatman plant is the third or fourth largest employer in town, said Richard Stanley, president of the Sanford Springvale Chamber of Commerce.

The plant, which makes medical devices such as DNA plates and petri dishes, moved to Sanford’s industrial park about five years ago, starting out with 125 employees. GE Healthcare, a division of General Electric Co., bought the British-owned Whatman company in April. GE Healthcare officials were not available for comment.

Workers said the plant closing comes at a bad time, with rising fuel costs, a housing slump and economic uncertainty. Workers said the wages at the plant start about $10.40 and benefits are generous. They said it will be hard to find as good a job elsewhere.

The state’s unemployment rate remained steady at 5.5 percent in August, up from 4.8 percent a year ago. The federal unemployment rate is 6.1 percent.

“They are good to work for. They are honest and fair,” said Wanda Labbe of Sanford, who has worked there for eight months, after working at a donut shop.

Labbe said the plant closing was no surprise. She said workers knew after the sale in April that their jobs might be at stake. She said she is relieved that she has 14 months to find a new job.

Workers said the company has offered a monetary incentive to those who stay until the plant closes in December 2009.

Ryan Guyette of Sanford, who has worked at the plant for more than a year, is seriously considering the company’s offer of a job in Westborough. He said company managers told workers they would provide a van or other transportation, which would make the two-hour commute more tolerable.

“It’s an awesome place to work,” Guyette said.

Businesses along Route 109 say they will miss the workers’ business.

“We are definitely going to take a hit,” said Lisa Ibrahim, owner of Airport Variety, which delivers sandwiches and pizza to the plant daily.

She said she feels sorry for the employees.

“These are people that we know,” she said.

The only silver lining, said Ibrahim, is the new shopping plaza going in right down the street, home to a new Wal-Mart scheduled to open in the spring and a new Lowe’s which will break ground next fall.

The two stores are expected to create 400 to 450 new jobs, Stevens said.

Also softening the blow is development of the town’s long-vacant Goodall Mills complex in downtown Sanford.

The Town Council decided Tuesday to take the crumbling 65,000-square-foot Sanford Mill portion of the complex over by eminent domain, paying $150,000 for the property. The town is using federal money to clean up contamination on the site before reselling it to developer who plans to renovate it into residential and commercial space.

The town’s industrial area along Route 109 in southern Sanford is booming. The empty former Shape plant across the street from the Whatman plant has been sold and is about to become home to an architectural skylight company. Flemish Master Weavers is adding 60,000 square feet, Rubb Building Systems is expanding and New England Truck and Tire is building a new retreading plant.

“Until this happened we were feeling really good,” Town Manager Mark Green.


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