Town Built on Guns Ponders Future After Remington Plant Sale

Bidders for the idled factory have said they plan to restart at least some production, but details remain scarce.

Jacquie Sweeney stands outside the Remington firearms factory in Ilion, N.Y., Oct. 20, 2020.
Jacquie Sweeney stands outside the Remington firearms factory in Ilion, N.Y., Oct. 20, 2020.
AP Photo/Michael Hill

ILION, N.Y. (AP) — Workers at the sprawling Remington factory in this upstate New York village took pride in a local gunmaking tradition stretching back to the days of flintlock rifles. Now they're looking ahead with uncertainty.

Jacquie Sweeney and her husband were among almost 600 workers fired by the company this week, a few months after Remington Outdoor Co. sought bankruptcy protection for the second time in two years.

Successful bidders for the idled plant in bankruptcy proceedings have said they plan to restart at least some production, though details remain scarce.

There are high hopes for a successful reload of the plant that dominates the local economy. But these hopes are tempered by questions about how many workers will come back, and when.

“My husband, he’s looking for work, just like everybody else. And I plan on going back to college unless I find a job before I start that up,” said Sweeney, recording secretary for the local unit of the United Mine Workers of America. “That’s all we can really do. We can’t sit around and wait for forever.”

It’s common for people here to say that Ilion is Remington and Remington is Ilion. Company founder Eliphalet Remington started making flintlock rifles on his father's forge near here in 1816, and the Ilion factory site dates to 1828. Though the company moved its headquarters to Madison, North Carolina, the old factory dominates — literally and figuratively — a village that has long depended on workers making rifles and shotguns to power the economy.

Union signs reading "United We Stand with Remington Workers” are in the windows of local businesses that sell everything from pizza slices to steel-toed boots. At Beer Belly Bob’s beverage center across the street from the plant, Bob McDowell recalled the sales bump on Thursdays and Fridays after shifts ended at 3 p.m.

“I used to call it the beer train,” McDowell said with a smile. “It was busy, and it is gone.”

Remington’s recent history has been a roller coaster ride with a lot of drops. Layoffs have been common. The plant, which employed around 1,200 people eight years ago, was down recently to about 600 union workers plus an estimated 100 or so salaried workers. The company began moving two production lines to a new plant in Huntsville, Alabama, in 2014.

Remington dealt not only with the volatile gun market, but also legal action, after the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre. The gunman who killed 20 children and six educators at the Connecticut school used a Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, which once was made here.

Most workers were furloughed at the end of September as the company went through bankruptcy proceedings. Locals wondered whether it would ever restart.

The company was divvied up by multiple buyers. The bankruptcy court approved Sturm, Ruger & Co.'s $30 million bid for Marlin Firearms, which were made here, and Anoka, Minnesota-based Vista Outdoor's $81.4 million bid for Remington's ammunition and accessories businesses.

Roundhill Group’s $13 million bid included the Ilion firearms plant and a handgun barrel factory in Lenoir City, Tennessee.

Roundhill partner Richmond Italia, a paintball industry veteran, said he was approached by Remington CEO Ken D’Arcy about the opportunity, according to documents filed in the bankruptcy case.

“I believe I was approached by Mr. D'Arcy due to my manufacturing business in the paintball gun market and apparently Mr. D’Arcy believed that there may be some synergy,” Italia said in court papers.

Roundhill pledged in court documents to bring back at least 200 workers. They could eventually add hundreds more, but details are not clear.

Roundhill partners did not respond to calls and emails asking about their plans. But Italia told WUTR-TV last week they plan to bring back as many workers as possible within “a couple of months.”

Local officials believe a number of pieces need to be in place before production starts, from a collective bargaining agreement with the union to a new federal firearms license.

One likely product would be Remington’s Model 870 shotguns, said Jamie Rudwall, a district representative for the union. He said the new owners can rely on a trained workforce to produce shotguns for a hot market.

The FBI reports that it has processed more background checks to purchase or possess a firearm in the first nine months of 2020 than any previous year.

“We certainly have that capability of putting every single person back to work at 870s making literally between 1,200 and 1,800 every day. And every one of them will be sold,” said Rudwall, who once worked at the plant.

The UMW said it has held “productive discussions” with Roundhill. Meanwhile, it also has excoriated the outgoing owners for terminating 585 workers this week along with their health care and other contractual benefits. The union said the company is refusing to pay severance and accrued vacation benefits, sparking pickets in Ilion this week.

Local officials say the new owners have also expressed concerns about the efficiency of the old four-story factory, preferring a modern one-floor plant. Vincent Bono, chairman of the Herkimer County Legislature, met with them Thursday and said he believes something can be worked out to keep keep the long local tradition of gun production alive.

“We’re optimistic that Remington's going to have a home here,” Bono said. “To what degree, we really don’t know."

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