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Miller closing Tumwater.

Miller Brewing Co. is closing its 107-year-old Tumwater brewery, eliminating nearly 400 jobs and vacating a landmark.

Miller spokesman Michael Brophy told a news conference last week that the plant is the smallest and least efficient of the company's seven breweries. The old plant needed costly improvements, Brophy said. Miller was also embroiled in a dispute over wastewater disposal.

"It doesn't make sense economically," Brophy said, "A lot of thought and consideration went into this. It wasn't easy. It is a historic facility and our employees are dedicated."

Workers will be laid off in phases, Brophy said, and the plant will close entirely by July 1.

"It's like getting kicked in the stomach," said Dennis Matson, executive director of the Thurston County Economic Development Council.

The brewery is the county's biggest manufacturing employer. Its 350 hourly workers will be offered a severance package to be negotiated with their union. Brophy said some of the 50 salaried employees at the plant will be offered jobs elsewhere in the country, while the remainder will receive severance pay.

The brewery closure hits Thurston County just as the area is bracing for mass state government layoffs due to budget cuts.

Each brewery job supports 1.6 other local jobs, from suppliers to retailers, Matson said. The company's local annual payroll is $27 million, he said, and the average brewery worker makes $74,000 in wages and benefits. Miller also contributed generously to local charities.

"In a community this size, you're talking about a big impact," Matson said. "It's not only an economic loss. This brewery is an. icon."

Local residents can set their clocks by the factory's shift-change whistle, and the smell of malt and hops frequently wafts through town. The plant near scenic Tumwater Falls is the second-biggest tourist attraction in the area, after the nearby state Capitol. Tours of the building were canceled immediately out of respect for employees, Brophy said.

At the nearby Red Barn tavern, where a Miller banner boasts "You can see our brewery from here," the mood swung between glum and angry. One worker sat at the bar after her shift and cried, said owner Larry Jenson.

"It's going to hurt our business," Jenson said. "It's going to hurt every business in the county."

He and several retired Miller workers shared 40-ounce bottles of Hamm's beer as they chewed over the day's news.

"I'm devastated. It's like losing a parent," said Wayne Reller, who worked there for 30 years.

Glenn Burke, retired after 25 years, remembers when the Schmidt family, descendants of brewery founder Leopold Schmidt, owned the plant and knew each worker by name. Pabst bought the plant in 1983 and sold it to Miller in 1999. "When Pabst bought it we became numbers," Burke said. "If the Schmidts still had the brewery, this would have never happened."

Others blamed over-regulation, mainly in the wastewater treatment area, for driving the brewery out of business.

"It simply took too long to cut through the red tape," said state Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. "It's sad citizens have to suffer when government fails to truly address barriers that prevent bringing more job opportunities to this state."

The plant has been under pressure from a sewage treatment agency in Thurston County over its wastewater. It is behind in plans to build a $13 million treatment plant.

Mike Strub, executive director of LOTT Wastewater Alliance, had been leaning on Miller to announce its plans. The brewery had failed to apply for permits for its own wastewater treatment plant, missing a deadline in its contract with LOTT by 15 months.

"This is not the answer we wanted," Strub said Thursday.

The brewery was started in 1896, making Olympia beer. That brand, with the slogan "It's the Water," was renowned for using the water from the artesian wells of Tumwater.

Miller became part of South African Breweries last year.

The Tumwater plant produced about 1.7 million barrels of beer in 2002. It no longer produces Olympia beer, but instead brews Henry Weinhard's, Mickey's, Hamm's and Old English 800 Malt Liquor, beverages also made at other Miller plants. The Tumwater production will shift to those other breweries.

Brophy said the company has no immediate plans for the 98-acre site, although the company will consider offers from potential buyers. The Tumwater Brewery is the last of Washington's three major breweries to shut down, joining the Rainier Brewery in south Seattle and Lucky Lager in Vancouver. The Rainier site was recently converted into a plant for Tully's coffee company.

In addition to its Milwaukee mother ship, Miller has breweries in California, Texas, Ohio, North Carolina and Georgia. Brophy said the company is not considering closing any of its other breweries.
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Title Annotation:Miller Brewing Co. closes brewery
Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 20, 2003
Previous Article:Miller's Bowlin resigns, Adami is the new CEO.
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