ILION – Residents in this village of 8,000 or so along the Mohawk River usually don’t have much interest in news coming out of Nashville.
But an item published Aug. 20 on the business page of The Tennessean sure caught their attention: Remington Arms, far and away the biggest employer in this town, has been touring possible new facility sites in the Nashville area.
“The story was very much noticed,” said Ellen Jones, who owns the Farmhouse Restaurant located just across the street from the gated entrance to the sprawling Remington manufacturing facility in Ilion where the company has been making guns since Eliphalet Remington II forged his first rifle here in 1816.
“Everybody here relies on Remington in some shape or form,” she said.
Eight months after New York enacted one of the nation’s strongest gun control laws, Ilion is a community on edge. Residents and employers say they hear assurances from politicians that Remington, the oldest gun maker in America, will not move. But all they have to do is look to other upstate communities home to once-successful manufacturing companies – from Lackawanna and Rochester to Binghamton and Poughkeepsie – to see that such promises can be fleeting.
Now add in the SAFE Act, New York’s tough new gun law, and the anxiety only intensifies for those handfuls of communities where guns are manufactured. Gun makers in New York are getting hit on several fronts. They now find themselves operating in a state where some of their product lines, such as pistol-grip carbines, are illegal, resulting in a loss of customers in a state that is home to a major hunting and target-shooting industry.
At the same time, they are getting flak from gun consumers around the country for not leaving New York. Some gun owners have told the manufacturers they will no longer buy guns made in New York because of the new law.
And that has led other states to aggressively pursue New York gun manufacturers, with offers of economic development funds, tax breaks and cheaper and more welcoming climates in which to do business. So far, one company has announced it is leaving New York.
And the trend can be seen in other states that also have enacted tougher gun laws. Gun companies based in states like Connecticut and Colorado are moving or considering moving to other states. The beneficiaries: gun-supportive states such as Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia,
Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and South Dakota.
“There’s quite a bit of wooing going on,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade group.
He predicted that arms manufacturing companies not moving immediately from places like New York will, over time, re-direct future factory investments in other states with an eye toward leaving later.
There are about a half-dozen gun factories in New York, though that does not include dozens of machine shops, metal companies and others that supply the gun makers. That firearms industry supports 11,661 jobs directly or indirectly in New York in 2012 – from gun and ammunition factory workers to gun shop employees – with total wages of $695 million, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry’s trade group.
As for Remington leaving Ilion, company officials are not publicly talking. And that only adds to the residents’ unease.
“The whole community is very worried,” Mary Ann Cristiano, owner of the Ilion Hardware store, said of concerns that Remington could close and end the jobs of 1,400 employees here.
“It’s essential to the local economy. I think we’re very aware of the possibility a move could happen any time,” Steve Pardi, who owns a pharmacy so close to Remington that it sits in the shadow of the plant’s walls.
And Ilion, located just east of Utica, is not alone.
The scene playing out here is repeating itself, though not as dramatically, in several communities across upstate since Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s SAFE Act was swiftly enacted into law in January. As sides continue to battle over the merits of the law and its crackdowns on gun and ammunition purchases, people in upstate communities where guns are manufactured, or parts suppliers to gun makers, fear the loss of jobs and residents. And in struggling upstate, those are dwindling commodities. Ilion alone has lost 10 percent of its population in the past two decades.
Crossing the border
In Rockland County this summer, Kahr Firearms Group said it was abandoning the couple hundred acres it was eyeing for an expansion and instead moving to Pennsylvania – to a 620-acre spot just 30 miles from the New York border. The firm will locate its headquarters there and, within a few years, have about 100 executive, technical and manufacturing jobs at the new site.
“We felt we just had to go to a more friendly place where we are not burdened by the uncertainty of law,” said Frank Harris, the firm’s vice president of sales and marketing.
As a sign of the confusion that still exists over the SAFE Act’s provisions, Harris said his Pearl River company’s interpretation is that the law might not exempt New York manufacturers from its strict new gun possession mandates.
“We said, ‘if we’re not exempt, how can we conduct business?’ ” Harris said.
The new law has stopped sales in New York of several of its models, including a handgun that lost an exemption to an existing over-50 ounce weapon ban, he said. Harris could not provide sales numbers, saying a complete picture, taking into account a rush on gun purchases before the law’s passage, won’t be known until the end of the year.
Harris predicted his company’s exit will be followed, at some point, by others.
“We should have been consulted along with other stakeholders in this process. We just felt like it was shoved forward as a political decision,” he said.
Besides Remington, other gun makers or gun parts makers did not return calls to comment, including Kimber Manufacturing, which has a large factory in Yonkers in Westchester County. The United Mine Workers local that represents Remington’s unionized workforce, whose members came to Albany last January in a last-ditch attempt to slow the SAFE Act’s passage, did not return calls, and its offices were empty on a visit last week to Ilion.
Gun makers under fire
New York State gun makers are targets of criticism from both gun opponents and ardent Second Amendment backers.
“People don’t take into account where a Ford is made, but they do and they will in exercising their constitutional right,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade group. “For people passionate about their Second Amendment rights, it is important whether that company, by staying in New York, is undermining Second Amendment values.”
Consider Dan Wesson Firearms, which makes guns out of Norwich in Chenango County and was once owned by the great-grandson of one of the founders of Smith & Wesson. In November, the company’s factory burned down. As it was rebuilding, the SAFE Act was passed.
And after its parent company announced on its Facebook page the factory was reopening April 23, dozens of angry rebukes appeared from gun owners around the country. Among the kinder entries: “Move to a state that wants you & will respect your customers” and “Can’t buy anything from them because they are in an anti-gun state” and “Based in NY? Sorry I will pass. They do business in a state where it is almost impossible to own the product they produce.”
A company spokesman was diplomatic.
“There are a lot of people who feel if New York doesn’t support the Second Amendment that as a consumer they won’t support New York-based products. People are entitled to their opinion,” said Jason Morton, a spokesman at CZ-USA, a Kansas-based subsidiary of the Czech company that owns Dan Wesson Firearms.
The new law affects none of the revolvers the company makes, Morton said, adding the decision was made not to uproot its 25 Norwich workers and their families.
“It’s a lot easier said than done just to say we’re going to take our operations elsewhere,” Morton said.
Still, that has not stopped states like Tennessee and many others from trying.
Morton said those other states trying to get the Norwich operation to move out of New York have all had a similar message.
“We’re friendly toward your cause and New York’s not,” he said of their refrain.
Being tempted to leave
At Just Right Carbines in Canandaigua, executives have gotten calls or letters from more than 20 states trying to lure them away from upstate. One individual in Texas even offered free employee housing.
“Is it enticing? Yes. Do we want to move? No. We were all born and raised here in New York State. My selfish motive for staying here is I have 10 grandchildren,” said company co-owner Tom Fargnoli.
“If Tom and I were 20 years younger, we’d seriously consider these offers,” said Rich Cutri, the other owner of the four-year-old company.
The company’s revenues are off as much as 10 percent because it can no longer sell its complete product line in its home state. Fargnoli and Cutri are angry because of what they call the law’s ban on a cosmetic feature – the pistol grip on a semiautomatic pistol-caliber carbine rifle.
Given Cuomo’s push for the SAFE Act, it might be understandable that the two men were surprised that officials from the governor’s economic development team visited them just four weeks ago – months after offers from other states began pouring in.
“They wanted to know if we’re staying around the area,” Cutri said of the officials. And the visitors asked if there is something the state could do to help them.
“Yea, give us dollars so we can make a New York State compatible gun,” Cutri said he told them. He estimated it will take $50,000 – money he says they don’t have – to re-design their carbine to allow it to be sold in New York.
“They said they didn’t know if there were dollars available to make that happen,” Cutri said.
Fargnoli said their firm has 12 employees, but he estimated 160 jobs rely on Just Right Carbines because 90 percent of its supplies for the guns come from within a 30-mile radius of its Canandaigua factory. He said it was good of the state to reach out to them but wondered why nobody came to him in January to discuss the SAFE Act’s impact.
“I wish I could have sat down with Andrew Cuomo before he did this. He probably did what he thought was the right thing to do, but he hasn’t stopped anything. All you have to do is pick up the paper in any municipality to know that crime has not gone down,” Fargnoli said.
The company can still sell in 45 states, but he said it is costing him and his partner “great expense” not to lay anyone off since the SAFE Act.
“We’re not here to rabble rouse. We just want to manage our company, hire more people and we can’t do that,” Fargnoli said.
Hoping for the best
In Ilion, shop owners say they already got a minor taste for how bad things could be if Remington ever left. When the company cut their workers’ one-hour lunch break to a half hour, local restaurants and other stores felt an immediate pinch, and some closed, one store owner said.
“The state acts and everybody pays the price. People here are kind of worried,” Bruce Stanley Sr., who is retired after 34 years working for Remington, said as he left the Remington credit union one day last week.
Village Mayor John Stephans says he is confident that Remington is not going anywhere. He says it will be too costly for Remington to re-locate, and points to millions of dollars in capital investments and new hiring the company has made the past year. The Ilion plant’s product line includes the popular Bushmaster semi-automatic, which is now banned in New York.
Still, as any mayor of any upstate community knows, the terms “upstate” and “manufacturing” are not linked as they once were. Manufacturers have long lamented the costs of doing business upstate, whether dealing with high property taxes, high utility costs or expensive state regulations. The SAFE Act added a new business barrier overnight, say officials and company executives in upstate towns home to gun makers.
Stephans estimated Remington has a $125 million annual economic impact on the local economy - with $80 million of that just in payroll – that affects everything from car and home sales to fast food joints, barber shops and several subcontractors that make gun parts. He believes the Remington plant is responsible for 3,000 total jobs in the region.
Residents and shop owners wish they could have Stephans’ confidence that Remington will still be here in five or 10 years.
Cristiano, whose family has owned the town’s hardware store for 39 years, summed up the worries over Remington among Ilion’s residents and shop owners.
“It would be a domino effect if they moved,” she said. “A lot of our business depends on them being here. I hope nothing happens.”