The GE plant on the high land on the bend of Redmond Circle opened in 1953. The plant was built on a country airstrip when Redmond Circle was still a two-lane dirt road.
Rome attracted GE as part of a federal program that was trying to spread industrial development away from its traditional northeastern base, current plant manager Richard Lester said.
That was partly to develop other areas of the country and partly in fear that concentration of too much industry in one area would made the country more vulnerable to a nuclear attack.
Some 5,000 workers passed through GE’s doors between 1953 and the plant’s closure in 1997. At its peak in the early 1970s, the plant employed 1,800 workers.
Those employees are known to be fiercely loyal to the plant. That comes from a history of good working conditions.
“You made about as good of money as you could in Rome, I guess,” said Bob Bowen, an engineer and GE employee for 32 years who spent all but six in Rome. “The people were very congenial and likable. I just liked working for them.
“People really wanted jobs here. They made good money and it was a highly prized job.”
George and Ruby Curry, a couple who each worked there for more than 30 years, remember eating sack lunches while nestled against the airstrip’s control tower.
“When you came to work in the morning, you’d have to get the (construction) dust off your desk before you could go to work,” said Ruby Curry, 70, who worked in the employee relations department.
Numerous couples worked at the plant, Ruby Curry said, as well as several sets of twins.
“We were very young and we made a lot of friends and we became a GE family,” Ruby Curry said.
FROM PITTSFIELD TO ROME
Some employees came from local sources and others came down from the GE plant in Pittsfield, Mass.
Many of those transplants took Floyd County to heart, Lester said, while “others couldn’t stand the heat and went right back to Pittsfield.”
The Rome plant manufactured medium transformers, electricity generation devices, from the size of 500 kilovolt amps, typical of an apartment building, to 50,000 kilovolt amps, which were large enough to fill a small office.
The product was sturdy. The first one that rolled off the line in December 1953 went to Hartsfield-Atlanta International Airport, Lester said. To his knowledge, it was still in operation.
During its time of operation, the Rome plant sought to reach a production level of 100 transformers per week, Lester said. That figure was reached only during times of peak production. Typically, 30 to 40 transformers were produced at the plant per week.
The three main buildings were built at the same time in the early stages of the plant. A fourth was added in 1969 at the cost of $10 million, which represented the greatest amount of new investment in the plant’s history.
The 1970s saw a downturn in energy consumption that hurt the plant’s business, Lester said.
The plant was poised to make a comeback in the ’80s and ’90s with increasing energy consumption, Lester said. In 1990, there were still 1,000 workers — and hope — at the plant.
But the cost of producing the transformers at the Rome plant turned out to be too high as labor rates in foreign countries proved too much for the company to handle.
“It cost us more to build them than to sell them,” Lester said. “There never was a lot of profit in it, and then there was foreign competition.”
The plant shut down in December 1997. It had about 225 employees at the end.
Ruby Curry had to leave the plant during the downsizing that led up to the closure. “It was just sad,” she said. “We just had to sit there after downsizing after it had been there so long.”
GE’s medium transformer production is now based in Monterrey, Mexico.
TAXES AND TALENT
At one time, the Rome plant also contributed a great deal to the city and county in tax money.
Because the plant declined slowly over the years, the tax base drop came in small doses, said Rome City Manager John Bennett, adding, “It wasn’t really that big of a hit.”
GE still pays $240,000 each year in taxes, Lester said, with its assets voluntarily frozen at the value at the time of closure.
The impact on Rome cannot be measured simply through profit margins. GE and its employees contributed countless hours to public causes and activities.
GE and its employees supported the Red Cross and contributed to United Way, Lester said. A group of GE employees still performs maintenance chores at St. Mary’s School.
Other charities of note include Habitat for Humanity as well as civic clubs and organizations.
“Their employees were always a lot of very good participants in the community,” said Bennett.
In the mid-1970s, GE donated the land for West Central Elementary School. GE is a partner in education at the school and has purchased equipment and fixed drainage.
In 2001, PCBs were cleaned from a creek just behind the campus. But Principal Wayne Sanders said GE has been a “gracious” participant.
“I’d like to think this is what big business in America should be doing,” Sanders said.
The plant also spawned the Garden Lakes subdivision, which went up in the wake of plant construction. Rome had a housing shortage at the time, Lester said, and the new subdivision quickly became the home of choice for many of the plant’s employees.
With so many GE workers going from the plant at day to a Garden Lakes home at night, many of the workers developed tight relationships.
“We became lifelong friends,” said Bowen, who still lives in the Garden Lakes area.
Bowen, who graduated from Georgia Tech in 1964, believes the tie between the company and community remains.
“I think most of the people I know respected GE and still do,” Bowen said.
Note: The writer and Bob Bowen are not related.
TIMELINE OF GE’S HISTORY IN ROME
This is a look at the timeline of GE’s history in Greater Rome:
1953 — Plant opens. GE begins manufacturing medium transformers in Rome. PCB-filled pyranol is used as an insulator in the transformers.
1969 — Landfill A, open since the beginning of the plant, closes. Landfill A has PCB contamination as well as other pollutants.
1970 — Landfill C, free of PCBs, opens.
1975 — Landfill B, with soil from edge of contaminated Landfill A, opens for three months. Afterward, all waste is shipped offsite.
1977 — GE quits using PCB-laced pyranol as an insulating fluid because of environmental concerns.
1980 — GE’s Rome plant is listed as a site for investigation by EPA.
1982 — Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s preliminary assessment is completed.
1991 — First EPA site inspection completed.
1994-5 — The state Environmental Protection Division and GE conduct state-level expanded site investigation of the plant.
December 1997—Manufacturing plant closes.
May 2002 — The EPA contacts the EPD about the possibility of placing the GE site on the National Priorities List.
July 2002 — The EPD replies that NPL listing should be considered.
December 2002 — GE and the EPD settle an outstanding permit issue concerning groundwater monitoring and standards on site.
January 2003 — GE officials meet with governor’s staff, seeking help in stopping the EPA from considering NPL status. EPD officials explain their strategy to the governor’s office.
February 2003 — GE and the EPD reach an outline of an agreement for the cleanup of PCBs from the Redmond Circle Corridor.
March 2003 — EPA regional administrator Jimmy Palmer raises concerns about the plan in a letter to EPD Director Harold Reheis.
April 2003 — Reheis replies and asks the EPA to stop considering an NPL designation.
May 2003 — GE submits Redmond Corridor plan to the EPA.
June 2003 — The EPA issues a unilateral administrative order, formally entering the cleanup process.
August 2003 — The EPA, the EPD and GE meet at a closed meeting in Unicoi State Park near Helen. The EPA asks for more study from GE.
September 2003 — The EPA and GE discuss terms of cleanup.
Oct. 1, 2003 — Currently scheduled effective date for the EPA’s unilateral administrative order to take effect.
Source: Rome News-Tribune researc