Monroe, Tulsa prepare for consolidation

Thursday, February 5, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:32 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 13, 2008

While Columbia celebrates the prospect of 300 new jobs, city officials in Monroe, La., are trying to come to grips with State Farm Insurance Co.’s decision to close its operations center in the northeastern Louisiana city.

Monroe Mayor Jamie Mayo said his community is “shocked” and “devastated” by Wednesday’s announcement, which will dissolve more than 1,100 jobs in the region and move at least 500 of them to Columbia and Tulsa, Okla.

“I’m just very disappointed and hurt over the decision,” Mayo said. “But I respect that this is a business decision that had to be made. It’s unfortunate that we’re feeling that pain right now, but we’ll overcome this. It will just take some time.”

Monroe employees face tough decisions

The consolidation will mean a loss for the region of about $40 to $45 million in annual payroll, said Gary Stephenson, a State Farm spokesman. Some workers who don’t move to Tulsa or Columbia will qualify for early retirement benefits or severance packages, he said.

Stephenson wouldn’t speculate on how many of the workers would move from Monroe to other cities. A year ago, during another consolidation, about 300 State Farm workers were asked to transfer to Austin, Texas, from Monroe. Only 25 or 30 percent actually relocated, he said.

Genalee Alexander, a spokeswoman for Columbia Regional Economic Development, Inc., said the organization has offered to help Louisiana workers with the transition to Columbia by providing them with information about local real estate options and schools for their children.

State Farm has operated in Monroe since 1969, Mayo said, and is one of Monroe’s top five employers. Louisiana state and local officials tried to keep the company in Monroe by offering the company a $33 million incentives package, which included a proposal to replace the operations center with a new facility, Mayo said.

“That apparently wasn’t enough to overcome the internal factors that played against us in State Farm’s final decision,” Mayo said.

The struggling domestic economy also impacted the company’s decision to pull out, he added.

Buddy Spillers, president of the Ouachita Parish Economic Development Corp., said the announcement was “disappointing and disturbing” to the 1,140 State Farm workers at the Monroe facilities.

“It was like standing in the doctor’s office waiting to find out if a good friend was going to make it or not,” he said. “It’s a sad day in the neighborhood.”

Mayo said he will meet with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco later this week to develop a plan to help workers find new jobs.

Tulsa welcomes new jobs

Officials in Tulsa, which stands to gain at least 200 jobs from the consolidation, welcomed State Farm’s announcement. The company currently employs 780 people in Tulsa.

“We are glad to see the jobs,” said Bob Bledsoe, spokesman for the city of Tulsa.

Throughout State Farm’s internal review, Tulsa city officials never offered the company incentives, Bledsoe said, but urged State Farm to consider the benefits of adding jobs to the city, Bledsoe said.

Jay Clemens, president of Tulsa’s Chamber of Commerce, said in a prepared statement: “We are clearly pleased for the Tulsa community that we are not only retaining our current staff level, but also receiving additional jobs.”

Stephenson said it will be at least six to nine months before State Farm begins moving its employees to Tulsa and Columbia. That may be enough time, Mayo said, for his city to begin recovering.

“The trucks are not packing up right now,” Mayo said. “We do have some time to regroup.”

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