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Between a Rock and a hard sell

Paul Peirce
| Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Sucker-punched by InBev, supporters of a Latrobe brewery begin planning Round 2 today.

"No one ... not at the local government level, on the state level or at the federal level seems to be outraged about a billion-dollar corporation coming in here stealing Latrobe's signature product and throwing hundreds of local employees out of work," said Ron Moyer, of Derry Township, a Latrobe Steel Co. retiree.

Supporters of the Rolling Rock brewery are planning a noon rally and news conference at a Latrobe-area pub, Dino's Sports Lounge, along Route 30.

St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch announced last week it planned to purchase Rolling Rock's recipe and label.

"Something more has to be done, whether it's asking Anheuser-Busch to extend the plant past the July 31 deadline in order to find a buyer, or whether it's trying to locate more potential buyers," Moyer said.

Allen Kukovich, director of Gov. Ed Rendell's southwestern Pennsylvania office, said Monday that finding a buyer for the Latrobe Brewing Co. plant, and that saving 250 jobs is "a top priority on Gov. Rendell's agenda."

"I can tell you that I've been in personal contact with Gov. Rendell six of the last seven days discussing this specific issue. He's been in Latrobe many times and realizes the brewery's importance to the city and the entire community," said Kukovich, a former state senator.

Kukovich said that Anheuser-Busch's announcement that it had purchased the Rolling Rock brand from InBev for $82 million scuttled a potential locally-based buyout offer. The principals in that group were not disclosed.

"But that group of local investors was looking to keep the brand name. Because of the announcement Friday, that group never had the opportunity to present its own proposal to InBev," Kukovich said.

Kukovich said Rendell's office hopes to lure another beermaker or beverage producer to the Latrobe facility, where workers learned through a 4:30 a.m. phone call on Friday that the production facility was not included in the sale.

One potential suitor that Rendell's office intends to contact is Boston Beer Co., the maker of Sam Adams beer, Kukovich said. That beer is produced in the former Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Co. plant in Cincinnati, although Boston Beer's headquarters is in Boston.

"Boston Beer was looking at expansion in the Freeport, Mass., area, and to build new would be between $80 to $90 million. We were offering that local group some financial incentives that we would make available to any company interested in the Latrobe Brewing Co. plant," Kukovich said.

InBev spokeswoman Brenda Williams has said that if the company can't find a buyer by July 31, the Latrobe plant will close and the workers will lose their jobs.

Officials at Boston Beer did not return calls yesterday seeking comment. Officials at City Brewing Co., based in La Crosse, Wis., also did not return calls for comment on its rumored interest in the plant.

Former Latrobe Brewing Co. executive Al Spinelli was vice president of operations for City Brewing and still works there as a consultant, according to industry sources. City Brewing is among the nation's largest producers and packers of alcoholic beverages under contract with international beverage marketers.

Westmoreland County Commissioner Tom Balya said closing the Latrobe brewery would be devastating to this region.

"Rolling Rock has always been one of the anchors to survive when other breweries have closed. When it was sold to Labatts and then the Belgium brewery, the loyalty to Latrobe and Westmoreland County was gone," Balya said.

Latrobe Mayor Tom Marflak said city officials are still calculating the fallout.

"It seems like everything we've built on with Latrobe has been slowly chipped away, and that's bothersome. I really don't like the way things like this affect the families who have lived here for generations," Marflak said.

"If the plant closes, then is bought by another company and it opens back up, my concern is whether the current employees of the brewery are going to lose out or not. There's a union now, but would they have to start from scratch?" Marflak asked.

"Right now, everyone is bitter that we're losing Rolling Rock and coming up to me and saying we have a problem. It's not a problem, just an opportunity to expand and grow," he said.

According to tax records, Latrobe Brewing owns six parcels in the city with a combined assessment of $2.9 million. The company pays more than $302,500 in property taxes each year: $56,895 to Westmoreland County, $55,904 to the city and $189,781 to the Greater Latrobe School District.

Workers at the plant are trying to comprehend the loss.

"We're all still in shock. We haven't heard any names (of potential buyers), but we were told there are some people interested," said Joe Mulheren, chief shop steward for Local 144 of the IUE-CWA.

"We still have to continue making beer for the next 2 1/2 months, and hopefully by then there will be a buyer. There will be some of us at that citizens group meeting," said Mulheren.

The brewery may not be the only Latrobe-area company dealing with new ownership. Rumors have been circulating for weeks that the Canton, Ohio-based Timken Co. is taking offers on its Latrobe Steel Co. facility in Latrobe, where more than 500 employees manufacture vacuum-melted, high-strength tool and die steels and specialty alloy steels.

Some local workers report that they have been taking extensive inventories of products and supplies at the local plant in recent weeks, at the request of company headquarters.

"It's our policy not to comment on rumors and speculation. But we are always looking for opportunities to improve value to our customer base and strengthen our financial performance," said Jeff Dafler, Timken's manager of media relations.

Staff writers Rich Cholodofsky and A.J. Panian contributed to this story.

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