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Some 250 workers at the Amfuel plant in Magnolia who last week feared the imminent loss of their jobs will be keeping them well into next year.

Britt Gourley, chief executive officer of Amfuel -- a fixture in Magnolia since the end of World War II -- said in a news release Wednesday that "a substantial portion of the workforce will remain employed in Magnolia until at least November 2017."

Last week, in announcing that American Fuel Cell and Coated Fabrics Co. would close, Gourley didn't set a timeline on the final day for workers and said company officials would need to meet with leaders of United Steelworkers Local 607L to cancel a collective-bargaining agreement that runs through Nov. 22.

Gourley declined to elaborate on the company's plans Thursday, saying in an email, "To comment on negotiations that are, by their nature, private is to really invite misunderstandings, mistrust and inconsistent messages."

In his news release, Gourley said the company's discussions with union leaders were "fruitful," with both sides "committed to crafting a mutually acceptable plan" to keep workers on the job. Those meetings will continue, Gourley said.

The town of about 11,500 and county seat of Columbia County is happy to get the apparent reprieve, Cammie Hambrice, executive director of the Magnolia Economic Development Corp., said Thursday.

"This was a surprise to me," Hambrice said of Wednesday's news release. "I didn't see that coming. We're just thankful to have them a bit longer."

The company recently opened a plant in Wichita Falls, Texas, with some 40 workers there now and a small number of Magnolia workers accepting transfers.

Hambrice estimated the Magnolia plant now has 200 to 250 workers, down from 300 a year ago, because there have been periodic small layoffs or other forms of worker attrition since the plans for the Wichita Falls plant were announced months ago. "We'll continue to do whatever it takes to keep them here," she said.

The town's largest employer is Albemarle Corp., a chemical company, with about 600 workers, she said. A couple of other manufacturers in and near the city have about 200 employees each.

Mike Martin, a steelworkers union representative out of its offices in Benton, couldn't be reached for comment, but he said in Gourley's release that the union and Amfuel management had "formed a cooperative partnership" since January.

While it's no longer the city's largest employer, Amfuel is among its most historic.

The company began operations in California in 1917, when Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. started supplying fuel cells for the nation's aviation needs. The company moved to Arkansas at the end of World War II and converted the former Magnolia Cotton Mill into a manufacturing plant of coated fabrics and fuel cells for the military and aerospace industry.

It became American Fuel Cell in 1983 when local investors bought it to keep it from closing.

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It was sold in 1995 to a French company, Zodiac Aerospace. Zodiac officials last year said the company never had been profitable in its 20 years of ownership and predicted its closure by the end of the year.

Zodiac in June 2015 sold the company to the current owners, Crosslake Investment Group of Florida, which said it specializes in turning around the fortunes of promising small companies that lack capital.

Gourley, Amfuel's CEO and a partner in Crosslake, also said in his statement, "We have emphasized a number of times that the walls of the Magnolia structure are essentially crumbling around us. Only cooperation with the union and concerted effort and dedication of our employees has kept it standing for this long."

Business on 09/30/2016

Print Headline: Amfuel indicates jobs stay into '17

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