Home Depot adds jobs in W. Md.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In Washington County, good economic news is battling bad.

Home Depot Inc. is adding 125 full-time jobs to its distribution center just outside Hagerstown, part of an expansion at the sought-after intersection of Interstates 81 and 70, county officials said yesterday.

But last week the county learned that Phoenix Color Corp., one of the largest local employers, soon will close a facility north of Hagerstown that employs 180. Some of the employees will be moved to the company's two other local manufacturing plants, but most will be laid off.

"There's a critical mass of sales that are required to operate a plant that size, and we could not achieve it," said Edward Lieberman, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Phoenix, a printing company that is based in the county and employs more than 600 there now.

The remaining plants make book covers and other components. The plant being closed was a relatively new division handling book text printing.

Tim Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, said local career counselors will work with the printing employees to help them get new training and jobs.

"There's a number of large printers located along the I-81 corridor, so there should be ample job opportunities," he said.

Home Depot, at least, is hiring. It opened its distribution center last year, bringing 230 jobs to the area, and it has been adding to that number in recent weeks to get the work force close to 400, Troxell said.

It started off in the county with about 450,000 square feet of an 824,000-square- foot building in the Hunter's Green Business Center, but it has expanded into the rest of the space.

"It's good news, especially since they're utilizing an existing facility," said Bill Wivell, vice president of the Washington County Commissioners.

That building was left vacant for about a year when hardware company TruServ Corp. left.

Home Depot received $405,000 in state and local incentives for its initial round of hiring.

This time around, the state is giving the company a $300,000 conditional loan that won't have to be paid back if the job and investment targets are met, Troxell said.

The company declined to comment last night. The state Department of Business and Economic Development could not be reached for comment.

Washington County has landed a flurry of new businesses and expansions in the past year.

Tractor Supply Co. and FedEx Ground are finishing the construction of distribution centers that will employ 180 and 400, respectively.

Automaker AB Volvo is constructing an engine development laboratory at its Mack Truck complex in Hagerstown, part of a deal with the state to stay instead of shut down.

Netconn Solutions, a Hagerstown systems integration and consulting company, is moving to a new headquarters building and hiring 40 people.

The county has an enviable unemployment rate - an average of 3.9 percent last year through November, compared with 4.1 percent statewide.

It's the high performer of Western Maryland, which has struggled with joblessness. Washington County's unemployment rate averaged more than 6 percent in 1995, and it has been generally improving since then - with a bump up during the recession.

The challenge for the county, Wivell said, is pay. The average weekly paycheck is just under $600 - or $220 less than the state average.

He's hoping that the high-technology I-270 corridor will keep expanding west. Home construction has grown during the past few years, and county leaders expect that could lead to higher-paying jobs in the future.

"We're seeing a lot of pressures - residential pressures - so I suspect that a lot of the commercial and business enterprises won't be too far behind," Wivell said.

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