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Mill Might Re-Open
Former manager working on deal 

Cassie Tarpley
Star Staff Writer

LAWNDALE - The intake breath of a potential sigh of relief sounded Thursday, and Cleveland Mills/CaroKnit workers hope the exhale comes quickly.

Cleveland Mills plant manager Garth Elder told The Star Thursday evening that "an offer is on the table" to buy and reopen the landmark textile mill.

"I'm hoping I'll get an immediate response," said Elder, who has managed the Spartan International-owned plant for three years.

He would not give details of the offer.

Last week's sudden shutdown of the 113-year-old mill on the First Broad River left Elder and 225 employees in Lawndale without jobs.

Elder told The Star Sunday night, "We have about a week to salvage this, to try to put it back together and save the jobs." He declined further comment at that time.

Foreclosure by G.E. Capital Corp., Spartan International's primary lender, affected five other mills in the Southeast, including one in Jefferson, S.C., which is part of Elder's proposed deal.

"The offer is for both facilities - all 425 people - and it's a beautiful situation if it can happen," Elder said.

Melvin Carpenter said he hopes the dream comes true.

"It's no big secret, but we've all been holding our breath," said Carpenter, a five-year mill employee.

Elder said the Jefferson plant and its town are much like Lawndale, where the mill and community are practically one, he said.

"I'm familiar with that situation also," Carpenter said. "My heart goes out for any community that's in that predicament. We're just holding on, holding our breath, with no more than what's out there, that's all we can do."

Elder said he and partners from Honduras have joined forces in the deal.

"My partners are from one of the most important families in that country," he said. "They operate an apparel cutting and sewing plant."

He called the proposal "the perfect marriage" of American technology and low-cost labor in South America.

"And it's exactly what I think the government had in mind when they passed NAFTA and CBI (he North American Free Trade Agreement and the Caribbean Basin Initiative)," he said.

"CBI allows for American-made, U.S.-made yarn and fabric to be cut and sewn and packaged in the Caribbean and come in (to this country) duty free.

"It's the best of both worlds," Elder said.

Carpenter said reopening the mill is the best for his world.

"That would be great news, because there's 220-some people that are not going to have very much luck finding anything in this area, due to all the other mill closings," Carpenter said.

"There's nothing within 10 or 15 miles of this area."

When mill workers met with the Employment Security Commission Tuesday, he said, "They told us it would be a good year before anything new moves into the area. And there's a lot of competition for those jobs.

"And the numbers at the employment office are deceiving. There's more out there looking for work than the figures show. They're coming from areas that have been hit just a hard as ours, because they're having to widen their search."

Carpenter said most employees were aware that Elder was trying to buy the plant before Thursday's dramatic shutdown, when workers had 10 minutes' notice to get their things and leave.

"It's nobody's fault, it's just a sign of the times," Carpenter said. "Basically our government has sold us down the river, and they've not put anything in the areas where these cutbacks are taking place to address the situation."

Ivan Lovelace, a first-shift finishing supervisor with 22 years at the mill, said the company is "really is like a big family."

"The majority of us would like to go back and keep working together," Lovelace said. "It would be great to get us all back in and get some closure."

"If they bought it out, they would need experienced workers like we are. It would be a win-win situation - good for the people, good for the Hondurans, good for all involved."

About Elder, he said, "As far as I know, he's 'A' number one."

Elder said he has talked with many employees and all the plant's management team.

"These are wonderful people," he said. "They're all hoping we'll be able to do this, all hoping we get a positive response," he said.

Elder also said that the mill's customers and vendors have been supportive of his efforts.

"We know (they) are behind us," he said.

"I think we have a good solid future with this company," Elder said.