Merry Christmas, Waco, and the 300 or so employees losing their jobs. Questions now arise about turning this loss into the community’s gain. After all, the 2 million-square-foot General Tire plant at Business 77 and Orchard Lane, whose mid-1980s closing devastated Waco, now serves as home to the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative, or BRIC. Machinery giant Caterpillar, meanwhile, leases some of the former General Tire space for its Work Tools division.
Portions of the sprawling glass plant date to 1944, with expansion and modification arriving like clockwork since World War II, said Joe Don Bobbitt, chief appraiser at the McLennan County Appraisal District.
Age aside, the plant sits on 54 acres near Loop 340, has a rail spur at its disposal, and is served by “heavy power,” meaning maximum utility access, said Bland Cromwell, an industrial specialist at Coldwell Banker Commercial.
It has potential, Cromwell said, but for what remains the question.
“If it’s just a grade-level manufacturing plant, it could probably come back as something besides glassmaking,” Cromwell said. “We’ve been able to convert, modernize or utilize every plant shut down, including General Tire. This is a great industrial site. I’m not suggesting we demolish it, but the land itself has a lot of value, considering it is 50 well-positioned acres with infrastructure.
“It is a valuable commodity we don’t have a lot of.”
The human element of Owens-Illinois’ closing is another matter, Cromwell said.
“I have some friends a little bit older than me who worked their whole life there,” he said. “Those are life stories. Upgrades or a new operation moving in there does not sound good to someone losing their job or losing their pension. … But we are going to have plants shut down. It is a part of life. We can view it as an opportunity to bring something back, make a positive from a negative.”
Finding a single user for 1 million square feet would prove daunting, and he believes a segmented approach is more likely, Cromwell said.
“My first reaction is sadness for the workers at an industry that has benefitted Waco for so many decades, and the generations of workers there,” said K. Paul Holt, president of the local Associated General Contractors of America office. “This will be a blow to our workforce development, but these folks will have work histories that can easily be upskilled or reskilled.”
Holt said he is not familiar with the building itself, but remarked that “they do have their own water tower and their location adjacent to the VA Hospital is ideal for transportation for manufacturing or distribution.”
McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said in an email statement he regrets the closing and notes that generations have worked at Owens-Illinois.
“We are confident that our community can absorb this skilled and dedicated workforce into existing open positions or new jobs that will be available soon,” Felton said.
He said the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce continues “diligently recruiting sound companies,” and those efforts combined with incentives provided by the Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. have produced 3,600 jobs since 2020.
Gregg Glime, who markets industrial and commercial properties at Coldwell Banker Commercial, said the team there is working with a dozen industries “actively pursuing locations.” He said the good news is the prospects would employ 10 to 150 people apiece and would bring new names to Waco. Unfortunately, the community is running low on available buildings, “so we are kind of forced to look at vacant land,” Glime said.
Waco-based economist Ray Perryman said by email that the plant’s closure will have effects beyond the people employed there.
“If the plant were to shut down, the overall economic impact would be a loss of about 870 jobs and $95 million in annual gross product,” Perryman said. “Manufacturing facilities with union employees tend to have relatively high multiplier effects.”
His reference was to Owens-Illinois’ economic impact rippling through the economy, creating more jobs than those at the plant itself.
“Having said that, Waco is a dynamic economy with a lot of new and emerging activity and ongoing growth at a significant pace,” Perryman said in his email. “It also faces labor shortages in many sectors. … Thus, it is likely most of the jobs would be absorbed in a short period of time.”
Owens-Illinois spokesperson Jim Woods said the company continuously evaluates the long-term needs of its business “and the viability of the assets at each manufacturing facility to best serve our critical customer base.”
That examination, he said, led to the decision to shutter Waco operations.
“O-I has met with our team members and union officials to communicate this decision and discuss transitional support available both through the company and through the State of Texas government agencies,” according to a statement.
Bobbitt, the appraisal district chief, said appraised values for the building and land should remain steady for the foreseeable future, but product inventory will disappear and the taxable value of machinery and equipment has steadily decreased in recent years.
He said upon closing the plant, Owens-Illinois probably will contest appraised values, possibly taking legal action to have them lowered.
The combined market value of the operation's land, buildings, equipment and inventory is $212.2 million according to the appraisal district, with a tax levy of more than $1.1 million. The combined market value is down from $267.1 million as of 2021, when the levy was almost $1.6 million. The decline in overall value has been tied to the plant's equipment and inventory, while the land and building value have held steady the past three years, according to the appraisal district.