ATHENS, Ala. — A chicken processing plant owned by Pilgrim's Pride Corp. is shutting down this week after almost six decades, putting more than 600 people out of work and creating ripples that will be felt all over town.
The city of almost 20,000 is preparing for the end of a relationship that began in 1952 when James Beasley founded Sweet Sue Poultry, which originally ran the plant. Owners included Beatrice Foods and ConAgra before Pilgrim's Pride purchased the business in 2003.
Pilgrim's Pride filed for reorganization bankruptcy in December and announced it would close the north Alabama plant and others in July.
While a handful of plant workers prepare to relocate, many more of the 640 employees face uncertain futures during a recession that already has pushed unemployment above 10 percent in Alabama.
"The impact will be felt everywhere. I have friends that work there, and they are concerned," David Seibert, chairman of the Limestone County Commission, told The Decatur Daily. "Some accepted transfers, but many are searching for work."
Repercussions of the closing will felt throughout the city. Athens Utilities says Pilgrim's Pride was its largest water and sewer customer, spending $4 million annually. Athens City Schools will also feel the loss of the company's $25 million annual payroll.
After Tuesday, the plant will stop processing live chickens and the work force will dwindle to 40 employees, but the facility will remain open until the end of the week, said Pilgrim's Pride spokesman Ray Atkinson.
On Friday, the property off of East Pryor Street will go silent.
The Pilgrim's Pride closing is the second major industrial hit sustained by Limestone County in the past five months. Delphi, a 35-year employer in Limestone County, closed in June.
"Anytime is a bad time for layoffs, but now, with Christmas approaching, these families are going to have a tough time," said Mayor Dan Williams. "Everyone's had time to prepare, but once the doors close, it will become a reality."
A wave of closings by the Pittsburg, Texas-based company has cut about 4,250 employees total at six plants in the Southeast.