When Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. announced in fall 2003 it was pulling its cigarette manufacturing plant out of Macon, it shocked and worried most everyone, including Peggy Bailey.
The company had been a fixture in Macon since 1977. A payroll of about 2,100 workers made it one of the midstates largest non-governmental employers.
Bailey, who had worked at the plant for 20 years and was one of the last to leave, gets emotional thinking about the closing.
I did the paperwork for the trucks to move the equipment out, she said. It was sad to see it all go out the door.
When R.J. Reynolds, which merged with Brown & Williamson, announced the new company, to be called Reynolds American Inc., would anchor its headquarters and tobacco manufacturing plant in Winston-Salem, N.C., that news created a lot of uncertainty, even though the closure of the Macon plant would take about two and a half years.
Employees didnt know how long they would have a job or if they wanted to pull up stakes and move with the new company -- if they were even offered jobs.
Middle Georgia politicians and economic development folks worried about the impact of losing the high-paying jobs at the plant, which averaged $50,000 to $70,000 a year. They also worried about how the closing would affect schools, real estate, taxes and various communities where workers lived, shopped and went to church.
Many Middle Georgia nonprofits fretted because the company and its employees were generous donors to a number of charities, including United Way, which received thousands of dollars from Brown & Williamson employees every year.
At the time, Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission, called the closure news devastating for Georgia and for Macon.
But the economic impact wasnt felt as harshly as was first feared. It helped that by the time the tobacco plant was finally closing its doors in 2006, other businesses had opened or were moving to the area.
Construction of a $24 million cold-storage distribution center for what was then Sara Lee Food & Beverage -- creating about 130 jobs -- was underway. It came on the heels of several other high-profile ventures in the county, including retail stores and distribution centers for Kohls and Bass Pro Shops, which created more than 600 jobs. Then Nichiha USA, a Japanese manufacturer of fiber cement panels, announced it would build a $100 million plant in south Bibb County and employ about 100 workers.
I think this community has weathered the loss of Brown & Williamson, Topping said. You can never replace those jobs, because there are very few industries that have the pay level that Brown & Williamson and the tobacco industry had, but I do think the community has weathered it.
The plant made its last cigarette in March 2006. That December, Kentucky-based Cumberland & Western Resources paid $8 million for the 2.1 million-square-foot facility, which includes four major buildings and several smaller buildings on 204 acres. It continues to maintain the property and market it for lease or sale, Topping said.
Just this year alone, weve submitted that building for 12 different projects, he said. (Those companies) would have used part of it. Very rarely have we seen somebody who could utilize the whole facility.
While the plant closure was tough to stomach, former workers moved on to the next chapter of their lives. Some employees used their severance packages to go back to school and start new careers, some took job offers in North Carolina, while others started their own businesses or retired.
Many of the workers have stayed in touch with each other through Facebook and other connections.
Ten years after the announcement of the closing, The Telegraph takes a look at some of those former workers and what they have been up to since.
Peggy Bailey, 50, at B&W 1986-2006
Bailey worked as a drafter in the engineering department at the plant except during the last two years. When modifications were made to the machinery, she would handle the drawings for the electricians. She was transferred to the parts department after the closure was announced.
She loved working at the plant, and not just because of the good pay.
We were treated really good, she said. We were very spoiled.
She thought she would be asked to go to North Carolina, but it turns out they didnt really use drafters, she said.
When she learned she would get 15 months severance pay, she decided to enroll in what was then Middle Georgia Technical School to learn Auto CAD design. A week before graduation, she landed a civil service job in geographic information systems -- making maps -- at Robins Air Force Base.
I have good benefits again, and I got promoted, she said. I know its 10 years later, but I still havent gotten to my old salary.
Jim Welch, 58, at B&W 1996-2006
Jim Welch relocated from upstate New York to Macon for the job at the local plant. He was a maintenance manager for the team making cigarette filters.
I had worked in steel mills, foundries, chemical companies, paper mills, and by far (Brown & Williamson) was the best facility I ever worked in, Welch said. It was modern, and they did a good job of hiring good people.
When the plant was closing, he was asked if he wanted to interview for a mechanics job, but he turned it down. He had been in management his whole career and didnt want to step into a lower position.
Welch had worked in his familys meat business growing up in the Chicago area, so he decided to open his own business here.
In early 2006, while still working at B&W, he opened Welchs Country Smokehouse on Bass Road.
My business plan was to have two more of these running after three or four years, he said. But the economy kind of put the kibosh to that.
While Welch likes what hes doing now, he said he wishes he was in a location that got more traffic.
I enjoy working for myself, but I wish I was back working for Brown & Williamson, though, he said. The reward was better. Im not making the money I made out there. I have no time off. ... While I was at B&W, we would head to Florida about every other week.
Teresa Grizzard, 45, at B&W 1995-2006 and Robert Grizzard, 62, at B&W 1981-2006
Teresa Grizzard was a quality analyst before she left the plant and said working there was like working with family.
I enjoyed the employees, but I did not enjoy all the time I spent away from my other family, she said.
When Grizzard started working at Brown & Williamson, she worked eight-hour shifts but the company converted to 12-hour shifts. She said the long hours contributed to her divorce, but the good pay helped her pay her bills and raise her three children.
But I met my soul mate there, too, she said. So, it actually worked out better for me.
She and her husband, Robert Grizzard, married about a month before he left the factory. He had worked at Brown & Williamson since 1981, transferring in 1984 to Macon from the companys Petersburg, Va., plant.
Teresa Grizzard turned down an interview for a job in North Carolina because she got engaged. Three days after leaving Brown & Williamson, she started college classes and four years later graduated with a nursing degree from Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville.
The couple moved to Texas to be near the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center about three months ago after her husband was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
Because she worked as a per diem nurse, I didnt have to worry whether I was going to have a job when I moved somewhere else, she said. Nursing has given me a lot of flexibility. As a per diem (nurse), you just fill in for the day, and you make really good money doing it.
If the plant had remained open, she figures she would still be working there.
I would have stayed at Brown & Williamson until my retirement age, and I would have retired, she said. Thats all I would have done. By them closing the doors, its allowed me to see my full potential. Before, it was a paycheck. Now, I get to help people.
Robert Grizzard was able to retire from Brown & Williamson with full retirement benefits. He first got a job at Robins Air Force Base with a military contractor and then got a civil service job.
It helped that I had an engineering degree, he said.
Everett Collins, 62, at B&W 1976-2004
The cigarette factory was under construction when Everett Collins started working there, and he was a mechanic when he retired. His wife, Charlotte, began working there about a year later.
Like some other workers, Collins said it was like working with family and a good place to work except during the past few years.
As it got closer to the end, it was different because the industry was having so many problems, he said. It was stressful.
Collins was dealing with his own problems, too.
In 2004, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, his second bout with cancer. He had been cancer free since having prostate cancer seven years earlier.
Collins was allowed to retire early. As soon as he was able, he expanded a part-time construction business he started a half-decade earlier.
In early 2007, he decided to become certified as a home inspector and opened Collins Home Inspection Inc. His wife works with him in the business.
It took three years to get it going, he said. Weve got a pretty good business going now.
A few months ago, a preacher, Collins and another man started a new Pentecostal church. Now, the church, True Vision, has about 70 people in attendance.
Collins said its hard to believe its been 10 years since the announcement of the Macon plants closing.
Im doing great, he said. Im just happy to wake up every day and be breathing.
Jeff Landress, 50, at B&W 1987-2004
Jeff Landress was a machine operator and was in one of the first groups to leave the plant. He was offered a job in North Carolina, but for a man born and raised in Middle Georgia, it wasnt an easy decision.
It was really hard -- one of the hardest decisions Ive made, he said.
But his step-father and wife convinced him that moving with Reynolds to North Carolina was the best thing to do for his family.
Looking back on it -- even though we are now struggling -- it was the best decision I ever made, Landress said.
The environment was different there than at Brown & Williamson, but Landress said former Macon workers were welcomed there.
Two years ago, Landress faced a major personal crises when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer and one of his kidneys had to be removed. He said hes been cancer free since then.
Landress was laid off from Reynolds in spring 2012 during a workforce reduction. The factory outsourced his departments work.
I was shocked, he said. I was very disappointed. ... I have no hard feelings against (Reynolds). ... Im kind of glad Im out of the tobacco industry. Its a dying business.
His unemployment benefits have run out and while his wife works as a substitute teacher, weve been living off part of my retirement.
Both he and his wife are looking for full-time jobs.
We just have to be more frugal, he said.
Andy Mathis, 46, at B&W 1991-2004
Andy Mathis had spent the first 10 years at Brown & Williamson working as an electrical technician in fabrication, two years as an electrical maintenance supervisor and the last two working in computer and technical support.
I loved the people, and I loved the job, he said. I loved working on the machinery. I loved the technical aspect of it.
When he learned about the closure, he was shocked. He expected to work at the company for 32 years and retire early in life.
Mathis was offered a job with Reynolds, and it would have meant moving back home to North Carolina. His first job out of college was with Reynolds. After he was laid off there, he moved to Macon to work for Brown & Williamson.
My wife and I discussed it, and we decided we werent going to uproot the family and take a chance on still working nights for the next 20 years, Mathis said. So, we decided to stay in Middle Georgia.
Mathis said the severance package would not have lasted until retirement, so he decided to leave earlier than his release date and forego the severance.
It didnt take long for Mathis to find a new job with Flint Energies in Warner Robins.
I actually left B&W on a Friday and started at Flint on Monday, he said.
He started there as a meter technician and is now a journeyman meter technician.
Things have worked out really well, he said. I have more time on weekends to get involved with my kids ball games, help coach basketball and get more involved in the church. So, I would have to say (the Macon plant closing) was probably a blessing in disguise.
Denna Ochs, 43, at B&W 1997-2006
Denna Ochs was a senior financial reporting analyst at the company and said she was one of the last four employees to walk out of the plant.
I absolutely loved working for Brown & Williamson, she said. To this day, I can tell you I still mourn the loss of that job. (Not only because of) the friendships that were established, but also (because) the company was so good to the employees. ... They were so good at allowing employees to learn other jobs. ... You never got bored.
When Ochs learned about the closure, she and her husband were in the middle of building a house and hadnt finished signing all the mortgage documents. She was offered a job with the new company but turned it down. The couple had a young child and wanted to be near Ochs parents.
She started taking real estate sales classes and worked with Rivoli Realty but soon realized she was not cut out for commercial real estate sales.
She went to work as a comptroller for Macon-based Blake & Pendleton Inc., a retail sales and service company for industrial air compressors.
Ochs said she doesnt feel as challenged in her current job, but she enjoys working with a good group of people.
However, Ochs still misses Brown & Williamson.
If they said they were coming back to Macon, I would definitely go back, Ochs said. I miss it to this day. I still miss it.
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.