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Torrington braces for sugar plant losses
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Torrington braces for sugar plant losses

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TORRINGTON -- There’s no avoiding the large white building in Torrington. Its silos stand tall, visible in every direction for miles.

This is the sugar beet factory, has been since 1926. Back then, it was owned by Holly Sugar Corporation. Today, it’s owned by Western Sugar Cooperative. The building is a staple in this small town with less than 7,000 people, supplying more than 75 full-time jobs and more than 250 part-time positions.

Soon, that will change.

Western Sugar Cooperative announced last week it will shut down operations at the Torrington facility in 15 to 24 months.

“Just devastating,” said Torrington Mayor Mike Varney, who learned the news via email early last week. “Where do those (workers) go? Do they go unemployed? Do they retire? Do they move to (another sugar beet plant)? If that happens, they move out of town. It can affect the schools. It will affect the county.”

Western Sugar Cooperative is based in Denver. The company is shutting down beet slicing sugar production at the Torrington plant, and will expand facilities in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and Fort Morgan, Colorado.

“A very difficult decision,” said Kent Wimmer, 65, director of shareholder relations and governmental affairs at the Western Sugar Cooperative. “To do this, we have to do a sizeable expansion of those two other facilities (in Nebraska and Colorado), because we plan on continuing to process all of the beets that are currently grown in the Torrington area.

“As far as number of employees (in Torrington), it is a direct impact on 76 full-time employees, and another 281 seasonal employees.”

Brian Kingsley is one of those full-time employees. He moved to Torrington in 1997 and has worked at the factory since 2001, moving up within the company over the years. He is also president of the Torrington Volunteer Fire Department.

Kingsley heard the news through a co-worker at the sugar company.

“My initial thought was, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. You’ve got to be kidding me.’ It hit me right away,” Kingsley, 40, said. “That is such a huge impact on so many lives. Do they understand what they’re doing? That’s really the toughest part. It affects a lot of people.”

According to Wimmer, the primary reason for closing the Torrington facility is to expand Scottsbluff and Fort Morgan, allowing Western Sugar to slice the same amount of sugar beets in less time, producing the same amount of sugar, if not more, in two facilities versus three.

When Western Sugar Cooperative started operating the Torrington factory in 2002, most beets were not raised in the Torrington area, Wimmer said. That trend continued, and the company had to ship beets to Torrington. About 60 percent of the beets processed in Torrington passed the Scottsbluff facility.

"Beets are 70 percent water and they’re very freight sensitive," he said. "So they have to ship that many beets passed an operating sugar factory."

That's the only reason offered by Western Sugar. Wimmer said the cooperative has also had a difficult time finding employees to work in the Torrington factory.

Varney agrees that the company has had trouble bringing in employees over the years, specifically part-time campaign workers. He thinks it’s because some people had suspicions about the plant's future. 

The campaign is the busiest time during the year for sugar beet companies. It’s when beets are harvested, piled and sliced to extract the sugars. Campaigns can run from September to March, with the remaining months dedicated toward maintenance and preparation for the next campaign.

According to both Varney and Kingsley, there has been a lack of maintenance at the Torrington facility over the years.

“I’m sure, not only myself, but quite a few other people over at this facility would say if the company would’ve invested their money in the Torrington facility, well, we would’ve produced a lot more than what we’re doing now,” Kingsley said. “Things would be a whole lot better, and we’d still be in business and doing our jobs.”

“It’s easy to get rid of a factory that has not been maintained,” Varney said.

Wimmer disagreed. He stated the Torrington facility has a maintenance program similar to other facilities.

“We spent a lot of money on equipment there,” Wimmer said. “We just built two huge molasses tanks there two years ago, with the thought process that it would be a long-term plant.”

Production will cease sometime after the 2015-2016 campaign. Wimmer said it will help Western Sugar Cooperative be more competitive in the sugar production industry, and the company will still use the Torrington building as a terminal and shipping facility.

Kingsley understands there’s a business side to everything. But he’s concerned. The sugar factory is a big moneymaker for the town. The company’s decision will stretch beyond the workers. The loss of transit and people coming through town could affect local businesses, lodging and restaurants.

“How much money (is Western Sugar Cooperative) really going to make?” Kingsley said. “Is it really worth putting all these people out of work, just lining your pockets a little bit more?”

The Goshen County Economic Development Corporation is already making preparations. According to a press release, the GCEDC is increasing marketing efforts for a new business park that will offer “57 business-ready acres, plus 158 acres for future expansion.”

“While this closure is a definite blow to the community, there are also many positives,” Jenny Pragnell, interim director for GCEDC, said in the release. “By giving a lead time of a year, that gives the community time to process the information and identify ways to address the issues that arise from a plant closing of this magnitude.”

For now, workers like Kingsley are in transition. He loved his job, was fascinated by the sugar-making process, and enjoyed his daily routine.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Kingsley said. “Now I have to find a new career path.”

Follow Assistant Content Director Joshua Wolfson on Twitter @joshwolfson.

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