Grumman rethinking plant closure Salisbury complex has reason to hope


Grumman Corp.'s decision to get out of the military aircraft business could be the final blow for its struggling aircraft machining plant in Glen Arm, but there may be some good news ahead for its Salisbury factory, which is scheduled to close.

Officials say they are rethinking the decision, announced in May, to close the Eastern Shore complex, which makes aircraft cables and has nearly 250 workers.

Larry Hamilton, a spokesman for Grumman, cautioned that the reviewof the Salisbury decision is part of a new look at all Grumman facilities as the corporation restructures, and he warned against workers' becoming too hopeful.

"We are proceeding with plans to close Salisbury down, but in the course of this review it is being looked at again," he said. Final decisions on the fate of all plants, he said, are not expected until the spring.

Any chance of a reversal seems to rest with Grumman's recognition that the Salisbury factory is one of the corporation's most efficient plants. Mr. Hamilton referred to the Salisbury workers as "well-trained people with a strong desire to give you a good day's work for a day's pay."

He said the wage rates are lower than on New York's Long Island, where Grumman has its corporate headquarters, main aircraft production plants and about half of its 20,000 workers.

Grumman's review of its operations comes as it withdraws from the military aircraft design business because of Pentagon cuts in spending on new weapons.

Salisbury may get a second chance, but the outlook for the Glen Arm plant doesn't seem encouraging. Grumman officials will say only that its fate is uncertain.

As a result of the sharp cutbacks in military aircraft production in recent years, the Glen Arm work force has been reduced to fewer than 100. This is down from about 300 four years ago, and the plant is operating at 20 percent of its capacity.

Grumman corporate officials say it is difficult to maintain a plant at such a low volume, and Glen Arm could be closed and have its work taken over by outside suppliers.

As part of its restructuring, it is possible that Grumman will decide to shift work to Salisbury from higher-cost plants. The company says there is limited need for the electrical cables and wire harnesses produced at the Salisbury plant and that such work would be phased out.

The Salisbury plant opened in 1985 in a former garment factory. Projecting that it would eventually have 1,000 workers, state officials compared it at the time to landing the General Motors Saturn project, another economic development gem the state had pursued.

Grumman never came close to providing 1,000 jobs at the plant, which employed nearly 550 at its peak in 1990. Layoffs in recent years trimmed the work force to its current 244.

Grumman's decision to leave the combat aircraft design business came after the Navy announced this year that it could not afford to purchase a new plane, designated the AX, that was to replace the A-6 carrier-based attack bomber that dates to the Vietnam War.

Grumman had teamed with Lockheed Corp. and Boeing Co. to compete for a multibillion-dollar Navy contract to build the next generation of carrier bombers.

"We made a sizable investment and put our very best people on the program, and we gave it our very best shot," Renso L. Caporali, Grumman's chairman, told employees recently in an in-house publication.

Mr. Caporali said that the number of fighter plane prime contractors probably would be reduced to two from five by the end of the decade.

"It's obvious that Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas are the odds-on favorites," he said. "They have the programs and the resources to ride it out. We just don't."

Grumman will concentrate on defense electronics, information technologies and special purpose vehicles such as postal delivery vehicles.

Grumman's celebrated fighter planes include the F-6F Hellcat in World War II and the F-14 Tomcat.

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