DUNKIRK, N.Y. (WIVB) — ConAgra Foods, one of the largest employers in Chautauqua County, says it plans to close two plants on the southern tier by early next year, a move that would put more than 400 people out of work.
ConAgra bought the Carriage House plants in Dunkirk and Fredonia from Ralcorp in November 2012. Union officials say since then, ConAgra has cut back production at the former Red Wing plant in Dunkirk and closed the Petri baked goods facility Silver Creek, and they could see the writing on the wall.
Union president Tom Dickerson said, “I think they bought us just to shut us down.”
Company officials told employees Wednesday that as each unit is closed down individually, the equipment will be shipped out to other ConAgra plants, including new facilities in Kentucky.
“They claimed it was efficiencies and things like that, and they would be better served to run the products at different facilities, such as Buckner, Kentucky,” Dickerson said.
Both plants are expected to close by February 2015, and union officials expect cuts to begin in September. The plants make private label products, including peanut butter, jellies and salad dressings.
Senator Charles Schumer says he’s furious about the closings, saying the suddenness of the announcement never gave local officials a chance to keep the plants open.
“They say there is less demand for grape jelly and grape juice and grape products, but they would have known that a year ago. So I want to know if they bought the plant just to close it, to reduce competition,” Sen. Schumer said.
Chautauqua County Executive Vince Horrigan says ConAgra’s decision will also impact local grape growers, which are one of Carriage House’s suppliers.
“Looking at grape processing infrastructure, which was one of the first indications we had that Carriage House was terminating their grape processing business, when all of a sudden we are hit with, ‘No, we’re closing the entire plants,’” Horrigan said.
Dunkirk Mayor Anthony Dolce and Fredonia Mayor Stephen Keefe are both concerned about the welfare of the employees who will lose their jobs. Mayor Dolce says many are nearing the retirement mark, making it difficult for them to find other employment.
Mayor Keefe is also concerned for taxpayers, saying the loss of revenue from the plant will impact water users and sewer rates.
Horrigan had been in contact with ConAgra, trying to get the companies to reverse their decisions to leave, but says there wasn’t anything they could do because their decisions to leave were base don product demand.
A company spokesman says the closings, scheduled to start this summer, will allow ConAgra to operate more efficiently.