Despite the loss of 160 jobs in a downsizing by local employer Joy Global, Millersburg residents are optimistic the town can survive
The challenges facing the coal-mining supply industry have landed like a boulder in the middle of a central Kentucky town, where the employer of roughly 25 percent of the population has served notice that it is shutting down operations and letting people go.
Joy Global, touted on its website as “a worldwide leader in high-productivity mining solutions,” is closing its Millersburg mining machinery plant. It’s a blow to the town of 792, but one which local officials and business people say they are prepared to weather.
According to town historical records, Millersburg was founded in 1798 by Pennsylvanian John Miller. He and his brothers settled along land claims bordering Hinkston Creek and made their homes, farms and businesses there. Over the course of several centuries, Millersburg has survived the rise and fall of various businesses, including mills, distilleries and factories. The town was once an important stop along both the Lexington-Maysville Highway and the Central Railroad Line. As businesses came and went, so did some of the townsfolk, but the heart and soul of Millersburg remained in the people who chose to stay.
In the mid-1950s, Stamler Corp., a company that manufactured and supplied underground mining equipment to coal companies, began as a two-man operation. It grew and was eventually purchased by Oldenburg and then later, in 2006, was purchased again by Joy Global, which continued manufacturing mining equipment.
But on March 1, Joy Global representatives called a meeting with employees that would again change Millersburg. In the meeting, employees were notified that out of the company’s 197 current local employees, only 37 would keep their jobs there. The other 160 positions would be phased out by October of this year. The 37 remaining positions will include engineering, sales and marketing professionals, with the bulk of the manufacturing positions moving to Joy Global facilities in Longview, Texas.
“We always go up and down in the market cycles, and we have employees that come and go. We try to stay flexible in that, but this one is down so far that we just can’t see the bottom,” said Mark Finlay, vice president of marketing for Joy Global. “Nobody likes to see these downsizes at all. How we treat our people is quite critical. It’s an unfortunate decision, and we’ve had to make it, and now we have to move through it in an orderly manner. It’s not one of our proudest hours that we have to go through this.”
Finlay said the closure stems from a variety of factors, including governmental regulation, the closure of coal mines and an abundance of natural gas.
While the manufacturing side of the plant is closing, Finlay said that Joy Global is doing its best to continue to help employees through this transition. The company is not yet ready to announce any specifics with regard to retention or severance packages, but Finlay said that they are working with agencies such as the Bluegrass Area Development District and local city government officials to try to determine how to make the transition as smooth as possible. The phase-out begins with a “warn” period, where employees and local government officials are notified of the change, and will end with the complete shutdown of manufacturing in Millersburg.
“This is going to happen over a period of time. We want to continue to maintain our customers through this transition, and we are trying to help our employees as much as we can,” Finlay stated. “There is a proper transition plan that has to be put in with each of the departments to allow them to manage the strategy of warning down Millersburg, and what we are doing to try to offer some counseling for our employees for skills opportunity management.”
And the employees are not the only ones who will be affected by the void. The entire town faces challenges and massive changes.
Jon Ott, who is going on his third year as Millersburg’s mayor, said the change will be significant, but he forecasts the town itself will survive.
“We are looking at maybe a loss in payroll tax of about $100,000. That is generally about half of our budget,” Ott said. “It’s just like when someone loses their job, you learn how to cut costs. Everything is on the table to find out where to cut funds. I mean, you either have to raise taxes or cut funds, or you do a little bit of both.”
Ott said that he, alongside city council members and other Bourbon County officials, will hold several budget meetings to determine the next best course of action.
“I’ve heard a lot [of people talking] about changes. To a degree, there may be changes in services and changes in how they are provided, but it is not the death of the city,” Ott said. “I’m pretty optimistic about it. The town is going to still be there.”
Millersburg resident and Bourbon County Magistrate John Smoot agrees with Ott.
“You still have to have optimism if you’re going to live there,” Smoot said. “You have some people who have already made up their mind [to keep going], like the city council, the mayor and some community members.”
Still, Smoot said there will be a serious trickle-down effect that will impact the post office and several small businesses in town. The good news, Smoot said, is that the water and sewer plants are in relatively good condition and are mostly self-supporting. In addition, the streets in the entire town were recently paved, so the infrastructure is in place to continue operations for a while.
While city officials believe that the town will still stand, business owners are taking a realistic and hard look at their
Scott Clark was born and raised in Millersburg. He owns three businesses in town including Connor’s Café, a restaurant Clark named after his grandson. The restaurant has been open for four years and will likely lose about 20 percent of its business because of the closure. The restaurant delivers about 40 meals a day to Joy Global employees.
“It’s going to be hard on the town. It’s going to be hard on us. But we’ll make it,” Clark said. “It’s not going to hurt our grocery store too much, but it will hurt us a little there.”
Clark said he is still optimistic about economic opportunities and will continue with his plans for opening another business, a sports bar on the other side of town, in a few weeks. He also said that losing the Joy Global business forces him to think about taking up the slack in creative ways, such as a menu change aided by a new charbroiler that might attract new business.
Other business owners, such as Robert Barker, who owns 5th Street Café and has just completed an exterior restoration of the 500 block in Millersburg for an arts and cultural center, said his business will not likely be affected because he draws customers from Kentucky cities outside Millersburg, such as Lexington, Maysville, Paris and Georgetown.
“These changes in the community are opportunities, really. I don’t think anyone wants to see a downsizing with the company, but with the site being there, we as a community should encourage multiple employers to come in who could make sure that our destiny is not tied to the success of one person, or one company,” Barker said.
Despite the obvious drop in payroll tax revenue and the hit the local businesses will take, many of the town’s residents still see Millersburg as the place to raise their children and make their homes.
Andrew Buchanan grew up in Millersburg. He and his wife graduated from the local high school, went off to college, lived in Lexington for several years, and then returned to Millersburg, a place they proudly call home.
“We didn’t move back to Millersburg because Joy Global was there,” Buchanan said. “We moved back because we had family who lived there and we had roots there. We all know each other’s history, so it makes us a really tight-knit community, and that, to me, is what makes Millersburg. It’s not Joy Global. It’s not a café. It’s not the civic center or the military academy. It’s the people.”
Buchanan serves as chairman for Millersburg Pride, a nonprofit community group made up of eight volunteers who see a vision for Millersburg’s future. In this tight-knit community, pride and a sense of connection will likely be what saves them.
Millersburg Pride, which recently received $5,000 in grants from Joy Global, is working toward enhancing what has been there for decades. During the summer months, they promote Fresh Friday, a family-friendly community gathering in the town square on Main Street where they show a movie, offer hot dogs and hamburgers and host live music and games for all ages.
Buchanan said he hears a lot about people who are from Millersburg but who don’t live there any more. He and his growing family have no intention of leaving the comforts of the small town.
“We bought our first house here. We have a 14-month-old son, and this is the place he is going to call home,” Buchanan said. “We have dogs and a child and a garden, and Millersburg gave us an opportunity to do all that.”