Borden closing hurts, but it will heal in time

NO MATTER HOW YOU slice – or shred or cube – it, it was a hard piece of cheese – make that news – to swallow.

The announcement last week by Dairy Farmers of America that they would be closing their plant on South Street in Plymouth came as a shock and a disappointment to many and will leave more than 300 workers unemployed after the first of the year.

It means the end of the line for the last working cheese plant in the historic Cheeseville district – the area along the railroad tracks on what was then the south edge of the city - where it had been producing Borden cheese and other products since it was built in 1954.

But, according to DFA officials, it was the historic plant’s age that led to the decision that it was no longer profitable or viable to continue operating the plant.

That decision came despite a $13.4 million upgrade and expansion of the plant in 2011 – a project aided by $1.5 million in economic development funds from the state of Wisconsin and the city of Plymouth.

That decision also came despite the pledge by DFA as part of their developer’s agreement with the city that they would keep the plant open and maintain more than 350 jobs there for at least five years.

Friday’s announcement in effect breaks that pledge one year before it was set to expire – and it means that both the city and the state will be getting some of their money back from DFA.

The city put up $750,000 in funds from tax incremental finance district 5 and the state also gave DFA $750,000 towards the project. Most of that money is now gone and the city and the state will have nothing to show for it after January.

But on the other hand, the investment by the city and the state did keep those 300-plus jobs in Plymouth for four years – an annual payroll of more than $20 million, or more than $80 million pumped into the local economy over that period. Not a bad return on an investment of $1.5 million in taxpayer money.

On the whole, it can still be deemed a worthwhile investment by the city and the state, even if the final outcome is disappointing.

Government spending, in support of programs for business or for individuals, is always something of a gamble, as is any investment. But we need government to continue to make those gambles in order for all of us to succeed, and the track record locally continues to be positive.

As for the workers who will be out of jobs come the end of the year, it has to be a bitter pill to swallow – especially after they made concessions to the company in their union contract in 2011 to help make the plant upgrade project happen.

But if there is a positive note, it is the fact that Sheboygan County’s unemployment rate, at 3.4 percent, is the lowest it has been in years and among the lowest in the state. There is no good time to be unemployed, but it is a better time now than it would have been five or six years ago, when the economy had bottomed out.

That means there are plenty of jobs out there to be filled. Many of those, at least in the Plymouth area, are in the cheese and food industries, so many of those displaced Borden workers should be able to transition to new jobs – although for many of the longer-term employees, they will be losing many benefits and perks they had built up over the years at DFA.

It hurts to lose Borden, but it doesn’t mean that Plymouth must give up its crown as Cheese Capital of the World.

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