M Residential is a new project along the historic Roosevelt Avenue corridor, which stretches from Pawtucket through Central Falls and to the edge of Cumberland. Originally constructed as a manufacturing facility in 1824, this mill building is now 39 condominium residences featuring grounds along the Blackstone River, on-site hydroelectric power generation and contemporary design and luxury finishes.
The former Elizabeth Webbing, a manufacturing arm of California Webbing, made cloth straps used for seat belts and luggage. It ceased operations in March 2001 and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The complex, which included nearby mill buildings at 558 Roosevelt as well as others, was split up after bankruptcy. A portion of the mill, 558 Roosevelt, became a self-storage facility in 2004.
The property’s first owner was the Standard Romper Co. Shortly after the company bought the land from the city in 1941, it changed its name to Health-Tex. Children’s clothing was made there until 1988, when Health-Tex began pulling out of Rhode Island. Elizabeth Webbing Mills started using the building when it expanded operations in 1991, and bought the property in 1998.
About 280 people worked at the mill around 2000, compared to 400 in 1985. The state had about 6,400 textile jobs as of 2000, down from 8,100 in 1990, according to the state Department of Labor and Training. The decline mirrors the manufacturing industry overall, which lost about 26,800 jobs during the 1990s, from about 99,700 in 1990 to 72,900 as of 2000, state figures show.
Providence Journal (Providence, RI) | June 03, 2001
Byline: Lynn Arditi
Back when noise and light filled the sprawling brick buildings on Roosevelt Avenue, it was hard to believe Elizabeth Webbing Mills would ever die. Machines roared, floorboards trembled and generations of workers, many of them immigrants who spoke barely a word of English, stitched together new lives in Rhode Island’s textile industry.
They ran the machines that wove, wound and dyed the nylon, polyester and polypropylene threads into webbing for seat belts, luggage straps and dog collars. The jobs, back when they started out, paid less than $5 an hour, but there was always overtime and the promise of a raise.
“I remember going home and saying, ‘Mom, look! I got my first paycheck!,’” recalls Nella Fonseca, who began working at the mill as a winder when she was 19. She worked her way up to manager of the processing department. To Fonseca and others like her, the mill looked as solid as the bricks it was made of.
But all around, the graves of textile mills were being dug.
America’s industrial revolution, born just down the road at Samuel Slater’s factory in 1793, had long since left Rhode Island behind. The decline of the state’s textile industry picked up speed after World War II. Mill owners, drawn by cheap labor, headed south and later overseas. By 1980, just two years before Fonseca came to work at Elizabeth Webbing, textile jobs in Rhode Island had fallen to 12,282 – less than half the 28,100 recorded just 20 years earlier, according to the state Department of Labor and Training.
Just 1 in 10 textile jobs remain from what there were 50 years ago; about 6,400 jobs in all as of last year.
Today, most of the mills are small, specialty shops; fewer than two dozen employ more than 100, state data show. Elizabeth Webbing, with 280 people working in 22 buildings, was one of the exceptions. On Friday, the mill's winding machines will stop, the final production workers will be let go, and a business that started 72 years ago will end.
In the weeks to come, what remains of the red, blue, green and yellow webbing will be loaded into cardboard boxes and trucked away to customers. The buildings and machines will be sold to the highest bidders. “The handwriting on the wall has been there 100 years,” says Scott Molloy, professor of labor and industrial relations at the Schmidt Labor Research Center at the University of Rhode Island. “Now we’re just seeing the final death throes.”
For a long time, it seemed that Elizabeth Webbing would be one of the survivors. Its owners had decided, like others in the state, to specialize in straps, belts and other “narrow fabrics.” Such specialization was the only way many Rhode Island mills stayed in business after World War II.
To strengthen its position in those specialty markets, Elizabeth Webbing also invested in new technology to improve productivity. The strategy seemed to be working. In 1991, the company’s president and chief executive officer, Eliot Lifland, stood at the loading dock behind the former Health-tex plant on Roosevelt Avenue and spoke with emotion about realizing his dream of building a “showcase of state-of-the-art technology.”
The company celebrated the opening of the vacant former Health-tex plant across Roosevelt Avenue where it would build a new production center. Lifland, who had taken over the mill from his father, had reason to be proud. The Lifland family had built the company from a tiny mill with sales of about $200,000 to $300,000 a year in 1960, to a sprawling complex with 400 employees and sales of about $70 million by 1990.
And it was growing.
In 1994, Elizabeth Webbing acquired California Webbing Industries Inc., a $9-million narrow-fabric manufacturer in Los Angeles. A year later, it bought new, more modern equipment to extrude the polypropylene thread – a soft but resilient synthetic fiber – the mill used for nearly half of the products it produced.
In 1995, the company boasted 600 employees and sales of about $103 million, according to Lifland. Then, at the end of 1996, Lifland says, problems hit. In retrospect, the company tried to get too big “and didn’t do it the right way,” Lifland says.
The company suffered “significant losses” in 1997 and 1998, according to an executive summary provided by the company. Lifland was asked to step down as CEO in 1997, and the company was turned over to professional managers. In February 1999, George S. West, a graduate of Harvard Business School and an experienced “turn-around manager,” was hired as president and CEO to try to rescue the company. The effort failed.
On March 30, 2000, a year after West arrived, the company filed for protection from its creditors in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Providence under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy laws. The plan, outlined in court documents, was to sell the company’s Unitex division, which distributed industrial awning, sign and marine textile fabrics. Then West could focus on reorganizing the Elizabeth Webbing Mills.
The company sold Unitex last May, and West set out to try to find a buyer for the mill. In January, with the bankruptcy case still pending, the company signed a purchase agreement for the mill with Dimeling Schreiber and Park, a private investment partnership based in Philadelphia. But Dimeling backed out and the deal, which was scheduled to close on Friday, March 16, fell through.
The following Tuesday, with no buyer in sight, West resigned. The next day, the company’s chairman of the board of directors, Robert Wickey, did the same. With the top executives gone and no buyer, Elizabeth Webbing asked the court to convert its Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing to a Chapter 7, which paved the way for liquidation. Peter J. Furness, the company’s lawyer, says there was nothing else he could do.
Since then, Matthew J. McGowan, the court-appointed receiver for the company, has been trying to find a buyer for the mill, but has been unsuccessful. So McGowan is preparing to sell the building and its equipment, which the city values at more than $2 million. The cavernous maze of buildings, linked by underground tunnels, is being shut down one room at a time: weaving, warping, dyeing, processing.
Every Friday for weeks now, it has been a funeral procession of good-byes. Tears, hugs and promises to stay in touch. Nella Fonseca began saying her good-byes two Fridays ago. The hardest part was leaving people like Irene Almeida. She worked at the Number 6 winding machine. At 53, she had given almost half her life to the mill. It was Almeida’s last day, and tears spilled from behind her glasses.
“One of the best cutters,” Fonseca said as she watched her work.
The looms had already stopped running; their metal frames stood like empty jungle-gyms in the darkened room. The only noise was the clanging of tractor-trailers barrelling along Roosevelt Avenue. “It’s like something is missing,” said Czeslawa “Cindy” Bies, an immigrant from Poland who, 23 years ago, followed her parents into a job at the mill. “Like you lost your best friend.”
At 3 o’clock, the shift over, Bies, Almeida and the others stuffed plastic grocery bags with their belongings and lined up at the computerized time clock to punch out. Alipio Bernardo. Fernando Pereira. Manuel Matos. Maria Trinidade. Connie Saraiva. Irene Almeida. Cindy Bies. Nella Fonseca.
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