Ferndale Mayor Greg Hansen took “a nice, long walk in the rain’’ to compose himself Wednesday before agreeing to speak about the announced closure of the nearby Alcoa aluminum smelter — it’s a huge blow to a community already reeling.
Hansen, 53, only became mayor three months ago, but has lived in this Whatcom County town, 98 miles north of Seattle, for a half century. He knows its 14,500 residents were already feeling strained by the country’s aluminum tariff war with China and coronavirus lockdown concerns before learning of the pending loss of 700 jobs and a community fixture.
“It’s difficult to talk about,’’ Hansen said. “Alcoa is part of the lifeblood of this community. It’s one of the original big three industries that built Ferndale. They’ve been one of the major employers since 1966. I grew up here and when I was young and going to school, I’d guess that half the people I knew had a parent working at what’s now Alcoa.
“So, this is going to be a tough one…,’’ he said, his voice trailing off. “It’s going to be a tough one.’’
Pittsburgh-based Alcoa announced Wednesday that the Intalco Works plant just outside Ferndale, the last remaining smelter west of the Mississippi, would curtail production by July. The company is the nation’s top producer of aluminum — found in everything from airplanes to iPhones, but a commonity that was not performing well even before the coronavirus crisis.
“The world has fundamentally shifted due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, and we are taking decisive actions to address this crisis,” said Chief Executive Officer Roy Harvey.
The company will also cut $100 million in capital expenditures and defer $220 million in pension fund contributions.
Alcoa’s decision to curb production in Washington comes even as U.S. President Donald Trump’s 10% import tariffs on all aluminum imports remains in effect. While imposing the levies, he had said keeping domestic production was critical to securing national security.
The country now only has five smelters remaining and all of them are losing money. Forecasts have been bearish, with supply of aluminum far outpacing demand.
State Sen. Doug Ericksen, whose constituency encompasses Ferndale, called the planned closure a matter of “national significance’’ and vowed to leave “no stone unturned’’ trying to keep it open.
“The Intalco Works is critical to our national manufacturing infrastructure, to our local economy and to the working families of Whatcom County,’’ he said. “We can’t let this curtailment become permanent.’’
But Hansen wasn’t sure it can be saved.
“In the press release, it didn’t leave a ton of hope,’’ he said. “While I support all the efforts to try to keep them here and figure out how to maintain these industries, gosh, I don’t know. Either way, it’s going to have a significant effect on our local economy.’’
Hansen worries about the effects on other companies supporting the smelter, not to mention stores, restaurants and other neighborhood businesses Alcoa workers spend money in.
Ferndale voters rejected a February levy that would have supplied 13% of the budget for local schools.
“There was talk of re-running the levy and trying again,’’ Hansen said. “But how do you rerun the levy now?’’
The Ferndale Chamber of Commerce released a statement saying “the loss of 700 jobs in our community is profound. Alcoa has been a valued member of our community for more than 50 years. Its employees are our friends and our neighbors.’’
Executive director Anya Milton said in an interview the company donated generously to local charities, supported local businesses, served on boards and volunteered as youth sports coaches and mentors.
Three years ago, she added, when Alcoa was close to curtailing nearly 500 jobs, “it tore the community up at the time.’’
While the community rallied and the smelter was kept open, she said, “we are in truly extraordinary times’’ now with the pandemic.
“It’s going to be a big impact, I can tell you that,’’ she said.
Hansen said the community is resilient if nothing else, priding itself on a toughness one would expect from an industrial town. His advice to city hall employees was “to take some deep breaths tonight and really think about how this is going to impact us. And then sit down tomorrow and start talking. But this is a blow. And I think we’re still a little bit shocked.’’
A blow that will test the town’s toughness like few before.
“We’ve always been identified as being part of that aluminum smelter,’’ he said. “So, it’s a tough blow not only economically, but to the character of the community as well.’’