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A town's long run as nylon capital

SEAFORD, DEL. — SEAFORD, Del. - Nylon ain't what it used to be for the Nylon Capital of the World.

This town of 6,700, a few miles over the state line from Maryland, was transformed 64 years ago as the site of the first nylon factory. DuPont, which invented the man-made fiber used in products ranging from pantyhose to swimsuits to bedspreads, infused hundreds - and eventually thousands - of jobs into an economically depressed corner of southwestern Delaware. Just like nylon's impact on apparel, the plant shook some of the wrinkles out of the town, bringing money, a white-collar work force and cosmopolitan tastes.

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"I don't think there's ... anybody in the city that hasn't been touched by some aspect of DuPont," said Daniel B. Short, the mayor, who lives in a home moved from the farm that became the factory site.

Now some in town ponder what would seem to be the unthinkable: What would happen to the Nylon Capital without nylon? After years of worker layoffs and buyouts, DuPont is negotiating to sell Invista Inc., its recently renamed textiles subsidiary that includes the Seaford factory.

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Surprisingly, perhaps, Seaford isn't nearly as concerned as you'd expect of a city with a nylon bobbin on its official seal.

It's partly optimism on the part of community leaders that a sale wouldn't lead to more job losses or, heaven forbid, the end of the plant. But though its identity and well-being are inextricably tied up in nylon, Seaford has been slowly moving beyond that for years.

The burgeoning local health system passed DuPont as the biggest employer in the area a few years back, a new business park is sprouting up, Wal-Mart and other retail stores line the roads and the city annexed 180 acres last month that could be used for commercial development. About 950 businesses operate inside city lines.

On the other hand, average salaries have slipped and some buildings in town stand empty. But state leaders believe the city has positioned itself to survive the long slide that manufacturing, textiles in particular, has suffered in America.

"Seaford is really a wonderful example of a community that has successfully transformed from a dominant one-company town," said Judy McKinney-Cherry, director of the Delaware Economic Development Office.

It's tucked away from the beach resorts, the state capital and the corporate towers of Wilmington, surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans. The downtown is seven blocks long, buttressed with charming turn-of-the-century buildings. The Wash'n Vac III next to the bowling alley offers this purposefully odd come-on to passersby: "AIRPLANES WASHED FREE." (The owner has gotten lots of comments, but no planes yet.) You can buy your groceries at - what else? - the Nylon Capital shopping center.

Three generations ago, Seaford had little beyond farms and canneries. Then, DuPont announced it was building a factory just outside the town limits, on the Nanticoke River, to produce a miracle of chemistry.

Some long-timers grumbled about outsiders. But others in the Depression-wracked community streamed into the streets for a spontaneous parade.

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"It was a boom town, instantaneously," said Anne Nesbitt, a volunteer with the Seaford Historical Society, who arrived in 1948 when her husband took a job with DuPont.

The factory produced 4 million pounds of nylon fiber that first year. It produces 270 million pounds a year now, mainly for carpets, and has 650 employees plus 350 who work as on-site contractors, said Cheryl Parker, a spokeswoman for Invista.

But as many as 4,600 people worked at the factory in the peak years, in the 1970s - practically the entire population of the city at that point.

Friday afternoons 30 years ago would bring half-block backups at the local Bank of Delaware branch as workers tried to get paychecks cashed. Police would stand at two intersections during shift changes every weekday to keep traffic from snarling out of control as people flooded in and out of town - from Maryland, Virginia and other parts of Delaware. Residents set their clocks by the now-silent factory whistle that signaled shift change, and would arrange their lives accordingly.

"You didn't want to be around here at 4," recalled Tawn Shivers, 40, who grew up in Seaford and now teaches art at the middle school. "Bumper to bumper. It's almost like it just stood still."

Her family had no ties to the monolith, other than her mother's summer stint with nylon after graduating from high school. And at the time, for a child in Seaford, that was a sure way to feel left out. The cliques at school - and the country club in town - were filled with children whose parents worked for DuPont. Shivers was forced to miss practice with her high school tennis team once a week or so, whenever it met at the exclusive country club, to which she didn't belong.

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"If your family was a DuPont family, then you were elite," Shivers said.

Still, the company did bring cultured people to the area, she said. "Now we're more like a Wal-Mart society," she said. "I've seen a big change."

Frequent reminders of the industrial influence remain, though.

Two streets are named after nylon. The Seaford Museum has a permanent exhibit - including a 1960s spinning machine - dedicated to the factory that gave the town its identity. Volunteer docent Don Weaver, who retired from DuPont 20 years after his father, figures you can't pass five people in town without running into someone who once worked for the company.

The city still boasts its nylon connections on its seal (where it declares itself the "Nylon Capitol of the World," a spelling that officials are thinking about correcting). It's one of dozens of places across the country that proclaim themselves the capital of some product or another, such as cereal, carousels or catfish.

The town and its factory are so intertwined that some figured Seaford could not survive without DuPont, said Shannon R. Sapna, Seaford's economic development director. But even as jobs were cut, the population grew. In the 1990s, it jumped by 1,000.

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That's fueling growth at non-nylon-related businesses such as Nanticoke Health Services, which runs the local hospital and related medical operations and is now the town's top employer. This summer, it opened a diagnostic imaging center and a cancer-care center. It's planning to double the size of the emergency room, which is handling 23,000 visits a year in space meant for 17,000.

"We never let the dust settle here," said Renee S. Morris, spokeswoman for Nanticoke Health Services, which employs more than 1,000 people.

Elsewhere, the city's fledgling Ross Business Park has one tenant, another in the midst of construction and a third that just bought a lot. The government is well into construction on a $1.8 million city hall with a drive-through window for paying bills. Local leaders helped revitalize the downtown commercial district by sprucing up the main drag with picturesque touches such as brick and by offering tax incentives for restorations.

On High Street, the heart of downtown, you can eat roast duck at the Bon Appetit Restaurant, pick up herbs at the Open Cupboard Natural Foods Store or look at nylon under glass at the Seaford Museum. There's antique-button jewelry and books full of vintage postcards inside the Cranberry Hill gift shop's 1887 building - once a bank, now painted a very unstaid rose color - but no nylon trinkets, sorry.

Across town, the city's 150-acre industrial park is nearly full. A jarring exception is a $1.3 million earth-tone building constructed by Seaford in 1999 with state assistance, a speculative effort to further diversify the area. It has never been used, though state economic officials say a northern Delaware business is interested.

The building was originally meant to attract a manufacturing company, and those are hard to come by. U.S. textile jobs alone have dropped nearly 40 percent since 1994 as cheaper imports flooded the market, according to the American Textile Manufacturers Institute.

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"It's not a good situation, and 300,000 people can tell you about it," said Charles V. Bremer, the institute's vice president for international trade, referring to those laid off since 1994.

It's typical to see plants close when textile companies merge, Bremer said, though Seaford's factory could be in a better position to survive because its specialty is carpet fibers, which aren't facing stiff foreign competition.

But all things considered, employees at the nylon factory figure the city's prospects are more secure than theirs. Some are worried about their jobs and retirement plans as DuPont looks to sell Invista, part of a refocusing strategy for a company that has already reinvented itself several times. It is negotiating with Koch Industries Inc. of Wichita, Kan.

The world's oldest nylon factory is not a comfortable place from which to contemplate whether a new owner will consolidate.

"The company's done me well as far as pay - bought a lot of nice things working here - but there's always the shadow now of what am I going to do in the future," said Gerald L. Harman, a spinning machine operator who's also a union representative with the Seaford Nylon Employee's Council.

Brenda Wilson, site manager for the plant, said change is never easy, but she can't see a company spending good money on Invista simply to close its history-making factory.

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"We have very strong brands here that we produce at the site," she said.

Cutbacks at the factory over the years have also affected some local companies that had found a niche working with DuPont. One is Penco Corp. in Seaford, founded as a heating, air-conditioning and plumbing products distributor, which expanded in 1967 to store and ship the factory's finished nylon fibers.

Two years ago, DuPont consolidated its logistics operations with another contractor. Nylon work accounted for no more than a quarter of Penco's profits but most of its employees, and the company quickly contracted from 200 people to 85, most of whom were hired by the competitor. Nearly all of its 700,000 square feet of building space had been constructed for DuPont storage, too.

"That's life with DuPont these days - so we've reinvented the business," said Kent T. Peterson, vice president of Penco. "We started two years ago ... rehabbing our buildings and preparing to go into the public warehousing business."

Peterson said Penco has weathered the change well. His main concern is whether Seaford will turn into a place that can't keep its youth because area jobs don't pay enough.

The annual median household income of $28,400 is down $5,000 from a decade ago, counting inflation. The typical Delaware household makes $47,400.

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Decreasing buying power in Seaford is partially a result of it becoming an increasingly popular place to retire. And some of the new jobs - particularly in retail - don't pay as well as the old jobs that disappeared.

"That was the strong suit of DuPont," Peterson said.

But the chemical company made Seaford what it is in so many ways that people are loath to complain about the factory's waning employment.

DuPont was the jump-start that propelled growth, residential and commercial. It constructed some of the homes in town. It built the country club and the golf course, now independently operated. It brought in professionals who wanted more than quiet countryside, and their volunteer efforts improved the schools and paved the way for the town's first public swimming pool. In a way DuPont even helped birth Nanticoke Health, because a company engineer designed the hospital for free.

"Clearly our impact has decreased, but we're still a force in the community," said Wilson, the plant's site manager.

Louise M. Crosby, 74, who moved to Seaford a year before the plant opened, would get a kick out of telling people which capital of the world she lived in, back in the days when it meant something. The motto doesn't stand for much now that factory employment is a fraction of what it used to be, she said.

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"It's just not the big thing anymore," said Crosby, co-owner of the Cranberry Hill gift store. "It's kind of sad, when you realize what it had been."

Short, the mayor, believes the motto won't be replaced, regardless of what happens at the factory. It's become a sign of respect for the past - rather than a beacon for the future - in the city built on nylon.

"It doesn't matter whether we are or aren't, in true sense of production," he said. "We still are the Nylon Capital of the World. That's part of our history and demeanor forever."


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