The local economy was dealt another blow last week with the announcement that local mainstay Syracuse China will close in March of 2009.
Libbey Inc., which owns the Lyncourt factory, announced on Dec. 9 that it would close the facility’s doors next year because “weakening global economic conditions [have led] to [a] dampened financial outlook.” The Toledo-based company, which was formerly known as the New England Glass Works and Libbey Glass Company, will also close one of its glassware distribution centers in Mira Loma, CA.
Libbey Chairman and CEO John Meier said the closing comes after a disappointing fourth quarter in which the company expects its sales to be significantly lower than previously anticipated.
“The recent and dramatic slowdown in the foodservice and retail channels, weaknesses in the Mexican peso and declining consumer confidence in all markets are expected to contribute to reduced results during the fourth quarter,” Meier said in a news release. “While sales were close to expectations through October they deteriorated quickly in November. We are being impacted by economic conditions, but we are confident that we are maintaining our market share in our core North American glassware markets.”
Libbey Inc. supplies glassware and tableware to foodservice, retail, industrial and business customers in over 100 countries. The company is the largest manufacturer of glass tableware in the western hemisphere and one of the largest in the world. The company is also the leading manufacturer of tabletop products for the U.S. foodservice industry.
Meier said the March 27 closing of the Syracuse factory, which employs 275 people, will improve the company’s cost structure and operating efficiency. Syracuse China will now be made elsewhere, he said.
“For our customers, we expect to minimize the effects of this decision by continuing to service the North American foodservice dinnerware market with imported dinnerware under both the Syracuse China and World Tableware brands,” he said. “While considerable efforts have been made at Syracuse China to reduce costs, the operations continue to fall short of our strategic expectations. This restructuring of Syracuse China will improve Libbey’s competitiveness in 2009 and beyond.”
A long history
Meier and Libbey Inc. may be looking at 2009 and beyond, but local residents can’t help but think of the past — something Syracuse China certainly had.
Syracuse China was founded in Geddes in 1871 as the Onondaga Pottery Company. It became a national leader in ceramic research in the late 1880s; it was there that President James Pass created the first truly vitreous china body in the U.S. He won a medal for the product at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Two years later, the name Syracuse China began to appear in the china’s backstamp.
Syracuse China became a leader in hotel wares around the turn of the century due to its chip-resistant “Round Edge” shape. The company also produced fine decorated translucent china for home use.
The company built its facility on Court Street in Lyncourt in 1921. It was the first linear, one-floor plant in the American china industry. All production moved to that factory in 1970, shortly before its 100th anniversary. Around that time, new management purchased the assets of Onondaga Pottery and renamed it Syracuse China. They merged with Canadian Pacific Investments LTD in 1978 and were bought out by Libbey in 1995.
For more than 125 years, Syracuse China has been making fine dinnerware locally. Now that its operations will be moved overseas, many lament that loss.
“It’s been a staple in Lyncourt for decades,” said Salina Supervisor Mark Nicotra, himself a lifelong Lyncourt resident. “It’s definitely a blow.”
But Nicotra said residents shouldn’t think Salina won’t recover.
“We lost GM in the early ’90s,” he said. “We’ve faced things like this before. We will come out of this okay.”
Both the town and the county are looking for new businesses that may be interested in the property. Kevin Schwab of the Syracuse Metropolitan Development Agency said they’re already hard at work looking to repurpose the site.
“We’re making a serious effort to find someone who can come in and create more jobs and bring some business back to this area,” Schwab said. “Obviously, when you hear an announcement like this, it’s never good. [Syracuse China is] a longtime presence in the Syracuse area, and it’s devastating for those 275 employees and their families. That said, we’ve been pretty effective over the years at repurposing facilities like this.”
Schwab said there are many examples of repurposed businesses in the area, including the former General Motors Inland Fisher Guide plant just down the road from Syracuse China.
“That’s one of our biggest success stories,” Schwab said. “That’s now three-quarters full with 17 or 18 businesses and over 500 employees. That created the mold for what we can do with a facility like that. It took years and a lot of cooperation between GM and the MDA, but we hope to have it 100 percent full in the near future.”
Schwab also pointed to the Hancock Air Park, a former Air Force base that’s become the fastest-growing commercial park in the county, and the Lockheed Martin facility on Electronics Parkway, which nearly shut down after Martin Marietta closed in the 1990s but has now been revitalized.
“We’ve been very effective at this,” Schwab said. “We’ll get something in there.”
In the meantime, the county is also working to help Syracuse China’s employees, assessing their needs and providing them with any necessary training to make the transition as easy as possible.
“Right now, we have a ton of people over there working with the employees,” said Mary Beth Primo of the Onondaga County Department of Economic Development. “We have CNY Works helping to determine what kind of training they may need to reenter the workforce, and we’re also working with them to help them get whatever benefits they’re entitled to.”
Primo said she also fully expected the facility to be sold to another company.
“Obviously, we’d prefer it if these people could keep making pottery in Syracuse,” she said. “But this is a 600,000-square-foot facility that’s pretty valuable. We’ll definitely be able to attract someone else. If there’s a silver lining, that’s it.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.