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Another Mill Unwinds 

Cassie Tarpley
Star Staff Writer

LAWNDALE - There were no black ribbons, but the atmosphere hung heavy around this perennial mill town Friday. The industry that gave the town life is apparently dead.

Cleveland Mills, Lawndale's anchor and indeed the hub of this community for 113 years, was locked and a security guard turned away anyone who approached.

Shock, disbelief, and denial coursed through the town. Now comes the mourning.

Two men standing by a locked gate hashed over the events that took place in their town the afternoon before.

"I'm Larry Pearson and I'm retired from here. He's Charles Smith and he's fired from here," said Pearson, a 27-year veteran who retired last year as supervisor on the first shift.

His COBRA insurance coverage, his retirement and his 401-K are now in question, he said.

"You never see nothing like this coming," he said. "You hear rumors, but you don't know what to believe."

Smith checked out his shoes and said, "I'm just thinking I ain't got no job - 23 years and I'm 60 years old."

Thursday afternoon, the parent company, Spartan International, closed six textile plants in three states following seizure of its assets by G.E. Capital Corp., its primary lender.

Workers on duty were sent home, and those who showed up for later shifts were turned back.

The Star was unable to contact plant manager Garth Elder, but Smith said that early Friday Elder was also turned away from the plant by a security guard.

"Garth told me, 'I'm telling you just what they told me yesterday - to get my stuff and get out of here,'" Smith said.

A man dressed in a business suit and wearing a security badge stationed himself at the office entrance.

Refusing to identify himself, he said he was "brought in special for this situation," and said he had been instructed to offer one statement for the media: "At this time they are negotiating things at the corporate level and will be in touch with each employee."

In the meantime, questions sprouted like corn seed in May.

Joe Sparks, a 27-year mill veteran retired a year ago.

"I worked in the card room until that shut down, then went out to the dye house," he said.

Sparks said he has $18- to $20,000 in a 401K, and that Mike Wright, personnel manager at the plant, had told him to expect a check by June 1.

"Now that they've done this, I don't know," Sparks said.

Like Smith, how to get a regular paycheck is another question.

One answer came from the Employment Security Commission, which is offering immediate help with filing for benefits.

Jim Moten, manager of the Commission's Cleveland County office, said he had heard nothing from Cleveland Mills/CaroKnit officials, but his office has arranged a special application day at a special site for the displaced workers.

"However, we have no way of notifying them," Moten said.

"Normally we get a list from the employer and we notify them through the mail, but we didn't get that list. Tell them to contact us at the ESC, (704) 480-5414, for information and to make an appointment to file for unemployment benefits."

County Commission Chairman Willie McIntosh said Thursday that if out-of-country competition led to the mill's demise, workers may qualify for federal help under provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement or the Trade Adjustment Agreement.

Moten agreed, but said, "NAFTA and TAA are not 100 percent certain to be approved, but it's an avenue that needs to be explored.

"We have arranged to use the agriculture extension office on Tuesday, May 8," Moten said, "but they need to call here first for an appointment. We can't take all 225 at once. Maybe this can save them from a long waiting time and take away some of their frustration."