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Liberty plant site closing in Aug. 2010

Liberty Mayor Rick Stratton woke up Wednesday morning and foundhimself on the front lines of economic development in AmiteCounty.

He probably wished he could call for a medic and be carried backto the rear.

Job recruitment is normally a slow, calculated process, but withTuesday’s announcement that Liberty’s Air Cruisers industry wouldbe shuttered by next fall and 90 more jobs would transfer fromMississippi to Mexico and New Jersey, Stratton had no choice but tobegin pounding the pavement in search of new jobs.

“We’ve talked to a couple of small companies about trying to getthem in here,” he said Thursday. “We are trying to get with the jobcorps and see if they can come down here and start training ourpeople to do something else.”

Air Cruisers, a manufacturer of inflatable life vests, rafts andevacuation slides for the aeronautics industry, is closing thelarger of two operations in Liberty.

Though a smaller vest manufacturing and repair center employingaround 35 people will remain open, the largest site will beginscaling down operations beginning in January and will closepermanently by August 2010. Air Cruisers began operating in Libertyin 1988.

But the economic slowdown was too much for Air Cruisers tohandle, said director of operations Ed Dundas.

The company intended to manufacture inflatable safety equipmentfor Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, a massive commercial airlinercurrently under development. The 787 is preparing to make itsmaiden flight this month after a series of delays that willultimately create a two-year lag in the production schedule.

“Basically, there’s not enough work to run three factories -that’s the bottom line,” Dundas said.

The loss of nearly 100 jobs is always a tough blow to a localeconomy, but Stratton is taking a long look at the bigger picture.The area has already recently lost a lumber company, aGeorgia-Pacific outpost and its own Liberty Tractor Co.

“You’re looking at about 150 jobs there,” Stratton said. “That’shard on us.”

Stratton said discussion about closing Air Cruisers has beenongoing for several years, but the conclusion has nevertheless lefthim upset – especially since part of the Liberty plant’s operationsare being transferred to Mexico.

“I never have liked them sending all this stuff to Mexico.They’re forgetting the U.S. is still here, and people need jobs,”he said. “The U.S. has become a technical nation and not aproducing and manufacturing nation, and that’s not good. Noteverybody can be computer operators, we have to have some people todo the work.”

While much has gone wrong in the Amite County economy in recentmonths, hope exists.

Had Air Cruisers terminated its entire Liberty operation, 125jobs would have been lost. Stratton also pointed out that U.S.Metal Works, Inc., is hiring up to 15 welders after nearing thebrink of closure during the recession.

Stratton may also seek resources from state and regionalorganizations. Cliff Brumfield, president of the SouthwestMississippi Partnership, of which Amite County is a part, said thePartnership stands ready to assist Liberty and Amite Countyofficials.

“We’ll get the crew down there to help them out,” he said. “Thestrong work force that was there for Air Cruisers will certainly bethere for the next employers.”