This Week in Columbia History: General Electric announced start of work on new Columbia plant

In early June 1969, General Electric announced the start of construction on a manufacturing and distribution plant in Columbia. In building the complex, GE became one of the first and largest employers to sign on to Columbia founder James Rouse's vision of a community where people could both live and work.

Appliance Park-East, as the new plant was known, was open for nearly 20 years. It was the largest private employer in Howard County, the Washington Post wrote in 1989, when GE announced its closure.

The plant was one of the earliest signals that the new planned community could work, said Pat Kennedy, former president of the Columbia Association.

"To many, Jim Rouse's 'Next America' plan seemed wishful thinking, unlikely to succeed," he wrote in an email. "But when he persuaded General Electric to build a major plant in the 'New City,' many skeptics took notice."

GE opened the plant in 1971 with a warehouse and two manufacturing facilities for making electric ranges and room air conditioners, the Baltimore Sun reported. Later on in 1977, according to the Sun, the plant began making microwaves to meet growing demand from working women who, the company said, had less time to cook.

Appliance Park-East was built on 1,100 acres of land, with the promise that GE would create as many as 12,000 mostly blue-collar jobs in the following decade, the New York Times reported. It was planned as the "second-largest facility of its type in the country," the Sun wrote when it opened in 1971.

But many of those jobs never surfaced. The plant employed 3,000 people at its peak in 1974, but faced with a recession and a flat-lining appliance market, it soon cut back its workforce, the Sun wrote in 1977.

The plant was also one instance of a broader Columbia controversy: the shortage of affordable housing for low-income workers, a problem that former Howard County executive Liz Bobo called "the biggest failure of Columbia."

The Post wrote in 1974 that many of GE's workers did not make enough money to live in Columbia, noting that Rouse's vision of a city where "company janitor to company executive" could live side by side had not come true. The Post wrote in 1989 that most workers at the plant commuted from Baltimore County.

By the time GE announced in 1989 it would close Appliance Park-East, the plant only employed 900 workers — most of whom lived in Baltimore County, the Post reported.

To help the workers being laid off, GE set up an employee assistance center, with job training, education programs and a social worker to deal with stress, and even offered venture capital for employees starting their own businesses.

"There was nothing else, in my view, that GE could have done," said Rita Carey, who headed the center in 1989. "I said once to some people in the company, I said you should tell people about this. They said, 'Rita, we don't want to be known for good layoffs.'"

Only 4.9 percent of employees said GE handled the closing poorly, according to Carey, who conducted research on the center for her doctoral dissertation. But despite the training and job placement programs, the majority of employees she surveyed, many of whom did not have a high school diploma, moved on to lower-paying jobs.

Despite the losses of jobs and taxes, Bobo said, the year the GE plant closed was also the first year that Howard County received a AAA bond rating, indicating that investors were not worried about the future of Columbia's economy.

That optimism panned out: The land that was once Appliance Park-East was developed into Columbia Gateway Corporate Park, which now employs 26,000 people in mostly white-collar and technology-related jobs.

"There's probably a real possibility," said Bobo, "that that is a greater financial benefit to the county than it would have been had the plant stayed."

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