When Key Tronic left Cheney, Sandi McCarty traded her time sheet for a hair dryer.
Once an employee trainer who earned $7.50 an hour teaching assembly line techniques, McCarty now owns her own hair salon in the heart of the town where she grew up.
“If Key Tronic hadn’t moved, I’d probably still be working there,” the 26-year-old says.
The slim blond with a shy smile stumbled into a job at the keyboard company in 1989 after high school. She quickly advanced to the job of trainer. And she met Tony O’Neill, who’s now her fiance.
Though for a while they worked different shifts, they’d meet over coffee at Denny’s every evening.
Rumors of the move to Mexico ricocheted through the plant long before the formal announcement was made in January 1994, and some workers thought they might have to follow their jobs to Mexico.
“It was frustrating. You knew they were doing it because there was cheaper labor,” McCarty says.
When Key Tronic closed its doors, she decided to go back to school. O’Neill opted to stay with the company and commute 45 minutes to its Spokane Valley plant.
The town of Cheney emptied. The stream of cars that flowed through downtown during shift changes was gone. The lunch counter at the IGA turned quiet.
“We certainly felt the impact of Key Tronic closing,” says Steve Worthington, community development director for the city.
At its peak in the late 1980s, the plant employed 800 workers. By the time it closed, 370 people had jobs there and another 180 worked under contract. Of the full-time workers, about 120 lived in Cheney.
“We felt the impact gradually, or incrementally, over the preceding year and a half,” Worthington says. “By the time the plant closed, it wasn’t quite as devastating as you might think.”
The biggest blow to the city was the loss of its second largest utility customer, and $30,000 to $40,000 a year in utility tax revenue.
The laid-off workers, including those who had temporary jobs, could take government aid for training, education and travel to find new work.
About 100 crowded into the office of federal trade act counselor Pete Karlston to sign up for benefits, thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.
“There were a lot of people that came, finished their BA and went to work really quickly,” he says. “Some relocated to Seattle, the Portland area and the Midwest.”
The programs offered up to 104 weeks of instruction, money for tuition and supplies, and extended unemployment pay to cover the time off for school. The benefits included up to $800 to help look for jobs in other markets.
“There was a lot of interest in computer programming and computer operation,” Karlston says. “Also different types of mechanics: diesel and equipment. Several people were interested in the clerical field.”
Key Tronic’s production plant was empty for three years as the city hunted for a tenant. Then, in 1997 Johnson Matthey Electronics moved its high-end technology production line there.
Johnson Matthey employs 400 at the plant — including McCarty’s fiance, O’Neill — and Cheney again knows when the shifts are over at the factory. “The traffic is back,” Worthington says.
O’Neill is a machine shop supervisor. He chuckles at the fact that, four years later, he’s back in the same old building.
McCarty is not back in a factory. She took cosmetology classes at Spokane Falls Community College.
“I was the first to sign up” for retraining, she says. “I knew it was probably my only opportunity to do this.”
After working at a few hair salons she started her own business last October — Sandi’s Expressions. She shares the space on First Street with a woman who runs a tanning salon.
The first few weeks were slow. But cousins and friends stopped in for trims, and her fiance handed out flyers and business cards. In less than a few months, she was able to pay her bills and take home some extra.
Now, she and the tanning salon owner plan to expand the space.
While she’s busy building her business, McCarty is also building her home.
She and O’Neill share a new pink and tan manufactured home on five acres in the woods east of Cheney. To one side of their house is the dog run where their Rottweiler-Doberman mix, Mister, guards the estate.
McCarty has found a way to stay in the town she loves. “I’ll probably never leave Cheney. It’s my home.”
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