FreightCar America leaving Roanoke

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Print this page by Tim Thornton
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FreightCar America is closing its Roanoke shops, laying off 200
workers. Photo by Don Petersen

Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea was surprised to receive a WARN notice announcing that FreightCar America is closing its Roanoke shops.

“We thought things were going well and they said they were,” Lea says. “We did not see it coming.”

Chicago-based FreightCar was talking about expanding operations there as recently as last year, searching for a site with rail access and room for 1 million square feet of manufacturing space. Now the company plans to close its Roanoke shops, shifting production of the rail cars to its Cherokee, Alabama, plant. More than 200 people will lose their jobs in phases, from September through November. That’s just over 1% of the Roanoke Valley’s manufacturing jobs.

“It’s not transformational,” Roanoke Regional Partnership Executive Director Beth Doughty says of the closure’s effect on the local economy. “It’s transformational for those 200 people.”

According to Roanoke Economic Development Director Robert Ledger, “The fortunate thing is these workers are amazing, hard-working, super-skilled people, and we have other manufacturers in the area that could reap the benefits of FreightCar America leaving.”

FreightCar America’s Roanoke plant has had several rounds of layoffs since the company took over the facility in 2005. Each time, Ledger says, laid-off FreightCar America workers had little trouble finding work.

“They have such in-demand skills in the community — welding, machinists, etc., that they are snapped up rather quickly,” Ledger says.

The median salary for Roanoke Valley welders is $42,580, according to the Virginia Economic Development Partnership. Machinists’ median pay is $44,359, and the city’s median household income is $41,483.

Even while announcing the closing, Jim Meyer, FreightCar America’s president and CEO, praised Roanoke workers, saying some will be offered other FreightCar America jobs. “Our people at Roanoke have consistently performed above all expectations,” Meyer said in a news release. “We are extremely thankful for everything they have given the company.”

That performance could not overcome the company’s desire to cut costs, however. FreightCar America expects to save about $5 million annually with the consolidation.

“It’s a new world out there now,” Lea says. “We’ve got to recognize that corporate decisions are being made daily and to be ready for these types of events.”

City and state officials got busy as soon as the WARN notice arrived, Lea says, and “we’re going to try to do what we can to find them work.”

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