With no apparent forewarning, employees of RR Donnelley's Mendota plant were told during a meeting last week that the local facility will close its doors on May 28 - a closing that will eliminate about 207 jobs. RR Donnelley, a Fortune 500 company headquartered in Chicago, delivered the news to employees on March 28.
The shocking news spread through town quickly as employees began contacting their families and friends to tell them about the closing. A few blocks away, city clerk Emily McConville had just received a letter from RR Donnelley. "It was minutes after they had their meeting we got it in the mail," McConville said holding the letter a couple days later. "This is the only correspondence the city has had with the company."
The letter, which is federally mandated by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), requires businesses having at least 100 employees to give 60 days advance notice of any mass layoff or plant closing to affected employees, unions and local and state governments. The law is intended to give employees and communities a transition period during which they can adjust to losing their jobs, obtain other work or pursue training for other work.
McConville said the letter also gave some general reasons for RR Donnelley's decision. "It's based on the 'overall economic downturn and the changing advertising environment,'" she said, reading directly from the letter. "They said they're not dissatisfied with either the business community or with the quality of our workforce. It's a reaction to the changing times. Print is becoming less and less demanded. That's what they said."
Still, McConville expressed extreme disappointment that the city was not even given a chance to work with RR Donnelley in an effort to keep the Mendota plant open. "I've been on the phone with Rep. Frank Mautino and Sen. Sue Rezin," McConville said, noting that both legislators were also surprised by the closing and called immediately to offer help. "We're all scrambling but there's just nothing we can do. They've made up their mind and there's no bringing it back."
Across town, Mendota High School Superintendent Jeff Prusator shared McConville's concerns and explained that the closing could also impact local schools. He was reassured by LaSalle County Assessor, Linda Kendall, that the school district would not suffer financially - at least short term. However, he said there could be other implications. "The bigger concern is the number of families this impacts," Prusator said, noting that the parents of quite a few high school students work at RR Donnelley. "That could have the biggest impact on us."
He explained that if families find it necessary to move away to find employment, enrollment could go down and fewer students would mean less State Aid money, which is allocated based on enrollment. "That could be the biggest factor," Prusator said. "In some families both parents work there. Where do they go for employment? You talk about 207 people looking for a job at the same time in the same geographic region that is already hurting for jobs, that's going to have an impact."
For many people, the announced closing of RR Donnelley brought back unpleasant memories from 1996 when Motor Wheel shut its doors. MHS custodian Manny Lemus, who worked at Motor Wheel at the time, told Prusator he remembered rumors circulating at that plant for some time prior to the announcement and then one day, company officials gathered all the employees together.
"Manny said he thought there were a little over 200 employees - about the same as RR Donnelley - but he said you could hear a pin drop. They [company officials] explained that they were closing...and afterwards, you could still hear a pin drop," Prusator said, recalling their conversation. "He said you're in shock when it first happens...you get a little bit of time to call family and regroup and then you go back to work. He said the more the day went on, the more the reality of what just occurred came into play and it kept getting more difficult...and into the next day as it sank in."
Now 16 years later, Motor Wheel remains vacant. McConville said the Motor Wheel building still has potential but in a few more years, left empty, it may not be useable. She does not want to see the same happen at RR Donnelley, which consists of a 125,000 square foot building situated on 14 acres. She said the property is not located in a TIF (Tax Increment Financing) district but it is in an Enterprise Zone, which means property tax abatements are available on large additions to the building as well as sales tax abatements on anything used in the building. "There are a few other benefits we can offer...we're going to have to use every tool we can," she said. "Obviously, the last thing we want is another vacant building."
McConville, who said she was devastated by the news last Wednesday, is working day by day to sort out the various implications RR Donnelley's closing will have on the city. From the housing market, to sales tax and even money spent at local businesses and restaurants, the effect will be far reaching.
Unlike Motor Wheel, which employed people from a wider geographic area, McConville estimated at least 80 percent of RR Donnelley's employees live in Mendota. She pointed out that LaSalle County currently has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state and this will cause it to go up even further. "It would be different if there weren't other communities in the same situation going through the same things," she noted. "There's only so much available."
Prusator also struggled to remain optimistic. "You're talking about 400 jobs within 16 years that are lost - I'm not sure I see anything coming to Mendota to replace 400 jobs," he said. "How many blows can you take before it has a significant impact? It's like a boxer in the ring. You can only take so many punches before the final knockout."
Despite rumors that circulated from time to time about a possible closing, Prusator said the actual announcement seemed to catch everyone by surprise. He said MHS teachers and staff were notified immediately so they could support students whose parents work at Donnelley. "This has been a very difficult week in Mendota," he said.
For McConville, the struggle to help Mendota recover from this blow is just beginning. To the community's advantage, however, a great deal of groundwork has already been laid to attract new business. "We are staying competitive with our infrastructure and basically, we have everything a company could want," she emphasized. "We've got incentives, the railroad, the interstate, water and sewer capacity and we'll soon have high speed fiber optics. We can fit almost any type of business in the world. They can come here."
Most importantly, McConville said Mendota has great people. "We have a good workforce," she said. "That's something I hear a lot at economic development conferences - they have jobs but they can't get people to show up or they can't pass drug screens. They don't have the work ethic. I know we do have a strong work ethic in Mendota."