UNITED STATES NEWS

This small New York village made guns for 200 years. What happens when Remington leaves?

Feb 10, 2024, 10:10 PM

ILION, N.Y. (AP) — Remington began here two centuries ago and generations of workers have turned out rifles and shotguns at the massive firearms factory in the middle of this blue-collar village in the heart of New York’s Mohawk Valley.

Now residents of Ilion are bracing for Remington’s exit, ending an era that began when Eliphalet Remington forged his first rifle barrel nearby in 1816.

The nation’s oldest gun-maker recently announced plans to shutter the factory in the company’s original home early next month, citing the steep cost of running the historic plant. Remington is consolidating its operations in Georgia, a state the company says is friendlier to the firearms industry.

The company’s recent history has been marked by a lawsuit after the Sandy Hook school massacre and bankruptcy filings that led to new ownership of the Ilion plant, where the workforce has dwindled from about 1,300 workers more than a decade ago to around 300.

But the move still stings for the village of 7,600 people, who face the prospect of a dramatic revenue loss and a vacant, sprawling factory.

“When Remington leaves, it’s not going to be like a facility leaving, it’s going to be like part of your family has moved off,” said Jim Conover, who started at Remington in 1964 packing guns and retired 40 years later as a production manager.

Gun-making dominates and defines Ilion. It’s entwined with the town the way car production is with Detroit.

Mayor John Stephens meets with village board members under a seal portraying Eliphalet Remington holding a long gun. The four-story, brick plant by Armory Street and Remington Avenue looms over the community about 55 miles (90 kilometers) east of Syracuse.

Everyone knows someone who worked at the plant. For some families, jobs there are practically a birthright. Conover’s father and sons also worked at the plant. Furnace operator and technician Frank “Rusty” Brown still clocked in there this year with family members.

“My mom worked there. My dad worked there. My wife works there with me now. My daughter works there with me now. My second daughter works there with me now. And my son-in-law works there,” said Brown, president of the United Mine Workers of America Local 717. “So it’s a double-hit for me and my wife: two of us out of a job.”

The current owners of Remington Firearms, RemArms, blamed “production inefficiencies” for the plant closure in a Nov. 30 letter to union officials. They cited the high cost of maintaining and insuring about 1 million square feet (92,903 square meters) of space in multiple buildings, many dating to World War I.

RemArms added that Georgia offered an environment that better “supports and welcomes the firearms industry.”

CEO Ken D’Arcy also said in a news release that the industry was concerned about the “legislative environment” in New York.

Some believe Remington is primarily shifting to the South to reduce labor and operational costs.

But in a stretch of upstate New York where support for gun rights tends to be strong, some Republican elected officials seized on the company’s comment about Georgia. They linked the plant closure to gun control measures championed by New York City-area Democrats in recent years.

Remington is not the first firearms maker to commit to a more gun-friendly state.

Smith & Wesson opened its new Tennessee headquarters in October after being based in Springfield, Massachusetts, since 1852. In announcing the move in 2021, company officials criticized proposed state legislation they said would prohibit them from manufacturing certain weapons.

RemArms, which bought the firearms business in 2020, did not respond to emails and calls seeking comment.

The company said in its letter to the union it expected to end facility operations around March 4. The company previously announced in 2021 it was moving its headquarters to LaGrange, Georgia, and would open a factory and research operation there.

The days of traffic jams in Ilion every afternoon when day shifts let out are long gone. Empty spaces dominate the factory’s big parking lot. Nearby businesses delivering lunches to the plant, like Franco’s Pizza, already have seen orders dramatically fall.

“They’ve been dwindling down,” Franco’s owner Daniel Mendez said. “This is not necessarily going to put us out of business, but it does hurt.”

With a fraction of its past workforce, Remington leaves Ilion with more of a whimper than a bang.

Stephens believes the remaining workers will be able to find other work in the area. But he also estimates the plant’s loss could cost the village almost $1 million annually, including utility payments and taxes.

Local officials hope the plant site can host a mix of manufacturing, retail and residential units. But its fate remains unclear. It was listed for sale last month for $10 million.

“Things can become an eyesore quickly,” said Michael Disotelle, historian at Ilion’s public library. “And the being in the center of the village like that, you can’t just let it go.”

The present factory site dates to 1828, when Eliphalet Remington located his operations along the recently opened Erie Canal. Though guns historically have been Ilion’s prime product, Remington also made typewriters, sewing machines and other consumer items.

Cerberus Capital Management purchased Remington Arms in 2007, placing it in the same corporate family as Bushmaster Firearms and other gun companies. Bushmaster Firearms moved manufacturing operations to Ilion for a time in 2011.

Remington Outdoor Co. and its subsidiaries filed for bankruptcy protection in 2018, citing slumping sales as well as legal and financial pressure after the Sandy Hook school shooting that killed 20 first graders and six adults. A Bushmaster AR-15-style rifle was used in the massacre.

Family members of victims and a survivor of the shooting who filed a 2015 lawsuit against Remington settled in 2022 for $73 million.

A second bankruptcy filing was made in July 2020. Within months, 545 workers at the Ilion plant were laid off.

The company’s assets were divided at auction. A judge approved Vista Outdoor’s $81.4 million bid for Remington’s ammunition and accessories businesses. The Ilion plant went to a group of investors called the Roundhill Group as part of a $13 million bid.

After months of union negotiations, the firearms plant reopened in the spring of 2021. If RemArms sticks to its March closure timetable, the restart in Ilion will have lasted just under three years.

The mayor said there will be hard decisions ahead, but he’s confident the site will be used again. And while Remington might leave, he said the connection can never be totally severed.

“Even when they are finally 100% no longer involved in the Village of Ilion in any way, shape or form, we’re still going to be known for this,” Stephens said. “You can’t erase history.”

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This small New York village made guns for 200 years. What happens when Remington leaves?