Twenty years ago Friday, workers at Malden Mills faced catastrophe when a wind-blown fire destroyed most of the huge textile factory in Lawrence where they made Polartec, one of the nation’s top winter apparel brands.
But in an uncommon display of generosity, mill owner Aaron Feuerstein said he would continue to pay his workers and rebuild the mill his family had operated for three generations in one of the state’s poorest cities.
On Thursday, the eve of the 20th anniversary of the blaze, hundreds of workers’ worst fears came true: Polartec LLC announced it would close its manufacturing operations in Lawrence and move the work to plants in Hudson, N.H., and Tennessee. A closing date was not disclosed.
Lawrence’s mayor, Dan Rivera, said he was stunned by the decision.
“It kind of feels like the fire all over again for us,” Rivera said Thursday, just hours after meeting with a human resource manager at the mill.
Feuerstein, now 89 and no longer involved in the business, called the decision “a disgrace.”
“All those jobs are lost, after we dedicated ourselves to keeping them,” Feuerstein said by telephone from his home in Brookline. “We considered our workers stakeholders, a part of the factory. They consider workers just a pair of hands. You can get a pair of hands in many places.”
In a statement, Polartec said the decision resulted from increased market pressure, as well as vast amounts of unused space at the red brick complex Feuerstein rebuilt after the the Dec. 11, 1995, fire.
“In its most productive year, the company has only been able to use 25 percent of its Lawrence facility,” the release stated.
Rivian Bell, a Los Angeles-based spokeswoman for the company, declined to comment further on the statement.
A timetable has not yet been set, but the company “anticipates winding down operations in Lawrence over the next few years,” the statement said.
The mill, located on the Methuen line, employs up to 300 full-time and seasonal workers and is one of the largest private employers in the Merrimack Valley. Its chief product is Polartec, a specialty fabric sold to the military and high-end outdoor apparel companies, such as Patagonia, North Face, and L.L.Bean.
Still, Malden Mills struggled to recover from the fire and the high cost of rebuilding a modern manufacturing facility. In 2007, the company filed for bankruptcy protection, a move that cleared the way for its sale to a Philadelphia-based private equity firm, Versa Capital Management. The company’s name was later changed to Polartec.
In a statement issued Thursday, Versa said its purchase of the company eight years ago helped preclude a “catastrophic event for the Lawrence and Methuen communities.”
The firm’s investment has helped to position Polartec as a “strong and innovative global competitor,” despite what it termed “structural inefficiencies” at the Lawrence facility.
Polartec plans to work closely with Lawrence and state officials to transition to new jobs over the next few years, the statement said.
But Lawrence, a city that had an unemployment rate of 6.2 percent in October, cannot afford the loss of blue-collar manufacturing jobs, Rivera said.
The mayor plans to meet soon with state and federal officials, and “fight for every job to stay in Lawrence.”
Rivera said he met with Polartec officials last month, after the company acquired rival United Knitting, based in Cleveland, Tenn.
“We were concerned at that time, because we knew that plant did similar work. But Polartec reassured us they would not do exactly what they are doing today,” Rivera said.
The exact number of employees at the plant is unclear. Bell put the number at less than 300.
Eddie Quiles, president of Unite Here Local 311, said the union represents 200 full-time workers who are employed year round, plus about 100 seasonal workers.
“It’s not just our workers but the community around us that’s going to suffer,” Quiles said in an interview.
Workers — most of whom operate high-tech machines — started to become worried about potential job loss when several production machines were recently moved out of the Lawrence facility, Quiles said.
“But we were told that they were planning to operate in both places,” Quiles said.
On average, workers are paid $13 to $15 per hour, plus benefits, Quiles said. A majority of the work force are immigrants, many of them Latinos. Some have worked at the factory for decades, he said.
“We have people who have been here 38 or 40 years,” said Quiles, who worked in the factory before becoming union president nine years ago.
“They’ve done what the city of Lawrence was basically created to do — produce the best fabrics in the world.”