Martin complex's future in doubt Middle River plant was on closings list


Although spared from annihilation in Thursday's corporate consolidation, Martin Marietta Corp.'s sprawling Middle River complex had been one of many plants on a list slated for closure early last month.

And despite the efforts of federal, state and county officials, who joined with the head of the local division to persuade executives to spare the plant, the future of the facility and its 1,600 workers remains in doubt.

The fate of the Baltimore County complex is "still very much in question," Mark L. Wasserman, secretary of the Department of Economic and Employment Development, said yesterday. He said the state was preparing an incentive package that he characterized as "appropriate, but daring."

Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who has spearheaded lobbying efforts that included a meeting Sept. 3 with Martin Marietta's top management, offered a similar assessment. The situation remains "very sensitive, but we have got to keep this plant open," the 2nd District Republican said.

On Thursday, Martin Marietta announced the closing of 10 plants and the elimination of 2,000 jobs as part of a corporatewide consolidation related to its $3 billion purchase last year of General Electric Co.'s aerospace division.

This included the planned closing of Martin's Glen Burnie submarine warfare plant, which employs 481 workers.

The Middle River complex was spared. But back on Sept. 3, as Mrs. Bentley visited with Martin Marietta executives in Bethesda, the local plant was on a company list of facilities being considered for closure.

Al Kamhi, a spokesman for the Middle River complex, downplayed the concern that the plant was slated for closing. He said that, at some point, every company-owned plant was probably on a list to be cut as company executives weighed the various aspects of consolidation.

The list of possible plant closings that included Middle River, as well as previous discussions with company officials, had prompted efforts earlier this year by Mrs. Bentley and Mr. Wasserman to lobby the company. Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Baltimore County Executive Roger B. Hayden also attended some of the meetings.

The Middle River plant, home to the Aero & Naval Systems division, has been fighting cutbacks for years. Employment has fallen to about 1,600 today, down roughly 600 since the start of the year and well below the 2,900 workers the plant had just three years ago.

To help reverse this trend, Mr. Wasserman said William F. Ballhaus Jr., a former NASA executive who took over as president of Martin Marietta's Middle River operation in May, has been working on a business plan to expand the plant's commercial aerospace business.

Mr. Wasserman said it was his impression after meeting about three months ago with Mr. Ballhaus and Norman R. Augustine, Martin chairman and chief executive, that the Middle River plant would have to "step up its commercial business to keep the plant open." Mr. Wasserman said a state incentive package would be just a small part of Mr. Ballhaus' plan to keep Middle River economically viable. He declined to disclose details of the state's offer, saying it "would be a violation of our discussions with Martin Marietta."

Neil Jacobs, head of Baltimore County's economic development office, said a shift into new lines of the commercial aerospace business could result in a "tough transition" for the company. "The state and county," he said, "was working together to do what ever we can do to help smooth this transition."

He said he thought the form of the state package would be determined by the company's needs. It could include a long-term

loan through

DEED or could involve having the state buy, lease or help Martin Marietta sell surplus buildings.

As part of the consolidation of facilities with those of GE's aerospace division, the company said Thursday that it would close two buildings at Middle River. One of the buildings is the five-story "E-building," which was erected in 1988 to house the local division's corporate staff and its growing engineering department. The other is an older annex used for tooling and storage.

Whether the local plant remains open is primarily linked to an increase in business volume and its profitability, Mrs. Bentley said.

In its favor, however, Martin Marietta's top management continues to feel a sentimental attachment to the plant and wants to keep it open, she said.

Company executives often refer to Middle River as the corporation's "mother plant." Opened in 1929, it served as corporate headquarters and primary production facility for three decades, employing at one time 53,000 workers.

The plant has produced the famous China Clipper flying boats as well as the B-26 Marauder, a World War II bomber known as the "Widow Maker" until design changes were made to improve its flying ability.

Middle River also made the Vanguard rocket that was used to launch its first satellite and the Titan II rockets, which launched the two-man Gemini spacecraft in the 1960s.

But in recent years, workers have been primarily limited to the production of a rocket launching system and thrust reversers, which act as brakes for jetliners.

Mr. Augustine has said repeatedly that Martin Marietta's goal was to be the largest or next-to-largest company in its various lines of business.

At this time, according to Mr. Kamhi, the Middle River plant was probably seventh or eighth in the worldwide thrust reverser market. He said the company was chasing "some very good prospects" in the domestic and international markets to boost its standing in the industry.

Mrs. Bentley said everyone at the plant, from the janitors to the top managers and government, is going to have to work together for Middle River to be successful.

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