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Features Local officials working to keep Whitley’s doors open

Since January, the employees of Whitley Products Inc., their families and many others in the community have been waiting for some good news about the future of the plant, but most of the hope that once existed has been extinguished since the plant announced that it would be closing by early May.

On Feb. 14, Macon County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kevin Corbin, informed the public at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters that the commissioners, town officials, and the Economic Development Commission (EDC) had been in negotiations with a company who specializes in domestic production of components for international sales. The optimism was apparent in the update of events surrounding Whitley, but became nonexistent as news broke last week that negotiations had fallen apart and the doors would most likely shut permanently.

In a letter from Whitley Human Resource Manager Jill Chambers on Feb. 19, Mayor Joe Collins was informed that in pursuant of the Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, company employees would be notified that the factory would likely be shutting down between April 22 and May 6. If this declaration comes to fruition, a total of 97 workers will be terminated.

The factory first closed back in late January, unexpectedly sending its employees home and then reopening a short time later. The company had been placed in a state of receivership, which means that a bank places individuals in charge of running it while potential buyers are approached for negotiations.

“The potential purchaser and Whitley had gotten close on a deal and had pretty much gotten discouraged,” said Mayor Joe Collins. “It seemed as if the deal was off and since then they've had some more negotiations. The EDC, the town, the county, we're all working and trying to pull something together. There are forces at work that are still attempting to get a deal done, to keep Whitley open.”

The discussions between the parties may be coming to a close, but there is still a possibility that a deal could be reached.

“It's not too rosy of a picture, but there's still things going on that could end up being positive,” said Collins.

According to Town Manager Sam Greenwood, Whitley's demise was a gradual one. It was bought by a sort of “venture capitalist group” 10 to 15 years ago. With a market that is constantly expanding and retracting, businesses often find themselves trying to do the same, which means that over the years the company has found themselves terminating a lot of employees.

In the late 1990s, the county attempted to help the company by allowing them to use space at the industrial park for the purpose of expanding job creation. At the onset of this partnership, the company met its job requirements, but when the market took a turn south they were no longer meeting these standards, eventually leading to their exit from the industrial park in mid 2012.

Though there is a pervasive sense of uncertainty surrounding the future of the plant, a small bit of hope remains that town and county officials will be able to somehow help to keep the nearly 100 jobs that Whitley provides in Franklin. During their Jan. meeting Macon County Commissioners unanimously approved an economic development grant totaling $28,000 ($7,000 a year for the next four years) to help keep Whitley open. The grant is contigent on Whitley growing jobs throughout those four years.

“It's a sad situation. I don't think I have ever voted against anything that would stop a job from coming in here,” said Commissioner Ron Haven. “In my heart I believe that there is going to be some company that is going to open this back up. We keep looking for things we can find. The commissioners, the town and the EDC, we've got our eyes and ears open for ideas that can bring jobs here.”

The Franklin Town Board of Aldermen will hold a special meeting tonight at 5:30 p.m. at the town hall board room to discuss economic develoment grants. The Macon County Board of Commissioners will hold a seperate meeting tonight at 6 p.m. in the court house board room.

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