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Ferndale rethinks its future after hundreds lose jobs at aluminum plant

The coronavirus pandemic, coupled with the near-closure of one of the city's largest employers, has many wondering what the future holds for Ferndale.

FERNDALE, Wash. — It's been six months since the devastating reduction of Ferndale's Alcoa Intalco aluminum plant. Hundreds of family-wage jobs are now gone, leaving families fearful of what lies ahead, and it's all happening in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

“The loss of Intalco really does kind of tear at the fabric of this community,” said Ferndale Mayor Greg Hansen.

In some families, three generations worked in the smelter at the Ferndale plant. In a lot of ways, the plant itself came to symbolize the town -- tough, gritty, and proud.

“Intalco has put food on the table of our community, but also is a part of the shared culture of the city of Ferndale,” said Hansen.

But as aluminum process tanked last spring, word came that the plant was in deep trouble. Workers rallied to save their livelihoods, but in July, the last smelter west of the Mississippi was curtailed after 56 years, taking about 700 workers with it.

RELATED: Up to 700 more workers losing jobs at Alcoa aluminum plant in Ferndale

The smelter has technically been “curtailed,” meaning there are still a handful of workers remaining on the property maintaining equipment, but no one expects the plant to reopen.

“The loss of Intalco was kind of the doomsday scenario for our community,” said Hansen.

A doomsday compounded by the coronavirus pandemic where government lockdowns closed businesses, and Ferndale's Main Street became largely deserted.

At this point, though, it’s impossible to determine which has had a worse impact on the town of just 15,000.

“Everything is really cloudy. It’s really difficult to see,” said Hansen. “We won’t know for a few years what the full impact of the loss of Intalco actually is.”

Economists say for every one job lost at Intalco, another 2.5 are impacted. That’s nearly 1,800 jobs in the area and the bleeding doesn’t stop there.

Alcoa-Intalco donated some $200,000 to local charities in 2020 alone. That includes more than $50,000 to the Boys and Girls Club of Whatcom County.

“Ferndale is a really proud community,” said CEO Heather Powell. “Giving back was part of that ride.”

Powell said the loss will be felt far beyond the bank account.

“They were coaches for our sports teams. They were members of our committees, members of our board of directors,” said Powell. “Anytime you lose the support at the financial level and the community commitment level, it’s going to have an impact.”

RELATED: Laid-off Ferndale smelter worker fights through plant closure, pandemic

One bright spot is the booming construction industry in Whatcom County. Some workers have been able to find jobs there and in related businesses. Others are taking courses funded by the federal government to retrain themselves for jobs that are in demand right now.

Something called the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, run by the U.S. Department of Labor, is extending unemployment and healthcare benefits to those left out of work at the smelter.

The question then becomes, what is Ferndale’s future?

There are currently no plans to redevelop the property. Alcoa-Intalco would first have to agree to sell it to an interested party.

Mayor Hansen, however, sees the death of the smelter as the birth of a new generation of opportunity.

“If there is any silver lining, it’s the chance to bring 21st-century energy and 21st-century jobs that will take us for another three, four, five generations,” he said.

It’s also a reason for workers who have been abandoned by their former employer to feel pride in their city once again.

“It’s gonna leave a huge hole in our community, but we are gonna get past this and we are gonna be okay,” said Hansen.

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