The News Desk is a collection of news, notes and breaking items affecting the Fredericksburg community.
Job losses ‘real hard’ on the Northern Neck
BY JONAS BEALS
Kinsale Handy Store cashier Karen Garner rang up lottery tickets and a soda for one of the four customers in the store. It was just past noon.
A few weeks earlier, there would have been a line out the door. The small gas station was a favorite breakfast and lunch spot for employees of the nearby Potomac Supply Corp.
“We would be slammin’,” Garner said.
Potomac Supply shut down Jan. 10, after its bank said it was unwilling to continue to finance the company without additional capital investment. The company board decided Jan. 20 to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
“It’s been real hard,” said Shirley Weldon. She and her sister, Callie Barber, prepare the ribs, chicken and sandwiches that bring customers to the Handy Store at mealtimes. Their hours have been cut back because of the shutdown at Potomac Supply.
Like so many people in Kinsale, Weldon and Barber are uncertain about a future without Potomac Supply. And like everyone else in the tiny unincorporated hamlet in Westmoreland County, they have their fingers crossed.
“We’ve been hearing rumors that the plant will reopen,” Barber said.
Before laying off 57 employees in December, Potomac Supply was the largest private employer in Westmoreland County, providing jobs for more than 200 people in a corner of the state where jobs are scarce.
What is being called a temporary shutdown has its roots in the recession. The severe downturn in the housing market has lowered demand for the lumber and other materials that Potomac Supply sells.
The situation is particularly problematic for Potomac Supply’s creditors, but it’s also hitting employees hard.
Westmoreland County Administrator Norm Risavi said a “considerable number of folks” earn their living from Potomac Supply. County coffers also benefit from the company’s being in business—to the tune of about $200,000 in annual tax revenue, according to Risavi.
“That’s pretty significant,” he said. “It’s almost a penny on our tax rate. It has a serious impact on our budget.”
RAISING THE BOOM
Since 1948, Potomac Supply had grown from a modest wooden toy manufacturer into a forest products behemoth that included a sawmill, a fuel-pellet mill, a pallet factory and a wood preserving facility.
And from the beginning, the company had close ties to the port town of Kinsale.
The history of industry in Kinsale is dominated by fishing and shipping, two businesses well suited to a protected deep-water harbor on the Potomac River. The grain elevator adjacent to the marina is still active today, and is evidence of Kinsale’s continued importance as a farming depot.
But even with today’s improved highways, Kinsale is still a 90-minute drive to Fredericksburg or Richmond, and more than two hours from Washington. It’s not an ideal employment location, even for the hardiest commuters. Perhaps for that reason, Kinsale’s recent industrial history was centered squarely on Potomac Supply.
According to Potomac Supply President Emeritus Bill Carden, a paucity of jobs was the reason his father, Robert Carden, started the company in the first place.
Robert Carden gave up a lucrative career in the Richmond tobacco business for an opportunity to move his family to the place he loved: Sandy Point on the Potomac River. The only challenge would be making money in the rural area.
“If I could just figure out some way we could go to the country and live at Sandy Point,” Bill Carden remembered his father saying, “it would be paradise all over.”
Seeing an opportunity in the local economy, Robert Carden and his wife, Hazel, started making toys. Then, after hearing about demand from local fishermen, they started making fish boxes.
As the local population increased, the company was in position to provide building products such as lumber and treated decking.
Over decades, Potomac Supply grew in size, stature and revenue. All the while, it continued to serve the same function intended by its founder—it gave local residents a chance to make a living where they wanted to live.
These days, many of the people who live in the Kinsale area are retirees and people with enough wealth to afford large boats and vacation homes. In most cases, their money was made elsewhere.
But for those who wanted to stay and work on the Northern Neck, Potomac Supply has been an option for generations.
There are other employers in the area, including the Bevans Oyster Co. and a number of farms that had a banner year growing row crops. But Potomac Supply’s influence is so great that even people who criticized management decisions to a reporter did so anonymously—they feared they would jeopardize future employment opportunities should the mill reopen.
Local churches rallied to organize a prayer vigil for the company a few days after Potomac Supply’s temporary shutdown began. The event was attended by current and former employees, as well as local politicians and religious leaders. Congressman Rob Wittman was on hand to lend support.
WORKING FROM HOME
Herbert Brooks, 75 and retired, started at Potomac Supply in 1961 as a truck driver. He ended up working there, in various capacities, for 53 years.
“I could get a job other places,” he said, “But I wouldn’t be treated like I was down at Potomac. They were real people.”
Brooks is a Kinsale native and still lives there. He knows firsthand just how valuable a job at Potomac Supply can be. And even those who didn’t work for Potomac Supply might have had a job that relied on what happened there.
“People don’t understand,” he said. “That company feeds a lot of people.”
Bill Carden is confident that Potomac Supply will continue feeding people, although he thinks the company might need to be sold before that can happen. A skeleton crew is working at the mill to prepare for what they see as the eventual reopening, while Carden’s son—Chief Operating Officer, Bill Carden Jr.—guides the business through bankruptcy.
The elder Carden’s confidence is tempered with a modicum of sorrow. His connection to the area and the employees is clearly important to him. Like his father, he relished the opportunity to make a living in the place he loves.
Carden questioned his son’s decision to move the corporate headquarters to Charlottesville. The elder Carden, who lives in nearby Hague, still prefers a hands-on approach to management, and still keeps an office at the company’s building in Kinsale.
He spoke highly of former employees, and expressed awe at the skills of some of the craftsmen who have worked at Potomac Supply over the years. He said that a lot of those people didn’t work for wealth, but for the opportunity to simply stay on the Northern Neck.
Carden sounded sincere—even emotional—each time he referred to employees as a family.
“This area is so unusual,” he said, thinking back on the family’s move from Richmond in 1948. “You would have had to know the people and the characters of the day. There was no other place like it.”
It is clear he still feels that way.
“I made my living here for 48 years,” he said. “And I loved every day.”
FILLING THE VOID
Bill Whitt and his wife, Barbara, opened Up The Creek Consignments last summer. It’s one of only a few businesses in Kinsale.
Bill Whitt said the mill’s closing will certainly impact the couple’s store, but the extent is unclear as yet. What he does notice is the sound.
“When you step outside, there’s a void,” he said.
The mill provided a constant hum of activity for Kinsale. With the saws and the cranes now idle, that background noise is gone. So is the whistle that would signal the morning shift at 6:30 a.m.
Whitt has faith that the Cardens will work through bankruptcy and get Potomac Supply up and running again.
“I think there’s a way out, and I think they’ll find it,” he said.
But when it came down to discussing the ultimate outcome, he refused to speculate on whether the mill would stay or go.
“When we hear it from the Cardens, we’ll believe it,” he said.
Special thanks to Kinsale Museum Director Lynn Norris for her time and knowledge.
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036