Western Gear Corporation in Everett closed on December 31, 1986.
On December 31, 1986, the Western Gear Corporation closed its doors after six decades in Washington and 15 years on the Everett waterfront. The next day, January 1, 1987, its ownership will be transferred to the US Navy, which will build Naval Station Everett on the site of Western Gear. The closure marks the end of a business founded in 1888 and cuts around 350 local jobs.
Navy sets sail for Puget Sound
On October 13, 1982, the Navy announced its intention to locate an aircraft carrier task force in Washington. According to congressional sources, Seattle or Everett would be the location of the new base. Throughout 1983, cost and impact studies were conducted to determine the best choice. At one point, splitting ships between the Everett Waterfront and Seattle Pier 91 was considered a possibility.
On April 17, 1984, the Navy announced its selection of Everett as the site for a new homeport, but uncertainty remained over funding approval. The following day, at an Everett City Council meeting, citizens who opposed the siting of a naval base in Everett called for a vote to determine the opinion of Everett voters. In an advisory vote in the November 1984 ballot, voters approved of the naval base by a 2-to-1 margin.
The acquisition of the property took place in two stages. On July 25, 1986, the Navy announced the purchase of 22 acres from Western Gear Corporation for $17.5 million. On October 2, 1986, Congress approved the first funds for the new naval base. On May 5, 1987, the Port of Everett Commissioners approved the sale of 143 acres of property for $43.5 million.
Western Gear must leave
The sale of the Western Gear property announced on July 25, 1986 required vacating the property by December 31. Over the next five months, the company had to remove all people, equipment and records from the property.
At the time of the sale, Western Gear’s parent company, Bucyrus Erie of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had not announced whether it would relocate the business or close it permanently. There were several options offered for relocation, including property near Paine Field in Everett and property near Skagit Regional Airport in Burlington. Other options included moving labor and personnel to other existing Western Gear divisions in other states. At the time of the facility’s closure, Bucyrus Erie had decided that instead of moving operations from Everett, it would permanently close the division and sell the product designs and rights to other parties.
The company laid off employees in three groups over a three-month period in October, November and December 1986. It provided up to three months of severance pay at full pay and medical insurance coverage after the layoff employees based on their years of service. At the end of this period, if an active job search did not result in a new job, the company extended the severance package at half pay for up to three additional months.
To facilitate the administration of these benefits and job search assistance, Western Gear has leased office space for human resources personnel on Colby Avenue in downtown Everett. The space included personal computers for use by former employees to prepare job search documents.
For sale to the highest bidder
The company had to liquidate all equipment, furniture and supplies used to manufacture Western Gear products. Everything from milling machines, heat treatment furnaces, grinders, tube benders and welding equipment to office equipment and cafeteria furniture was sold. A three-day auction in November 1986 brought a carnival atmosphere to an area that had been buzzing with the sounds of productivity for so many years. Organizers even brought an Onion Burger concession cart for the county fair, setting it up on the factory floor to feed hungry bidders. The smell of grilled burgers and the sounds of the auctioneer wafted through the building. During the sale, the auctioneers moved from object to object in the workshops of the various buildings and finally reached the business and engineering offices. (As the author can attest, it’s a very strange feeling when an auctioneer walks down your driveway to the big old steel desk that has been your workspace for many years and sells it for the starting bid of $15. Of course, the new owner was now faced with the daunting task of dragging that heavy steel desk down the steep, narrow staircase to remove it from the premises.)
For more than six decades in Washington, Western Gear has designed and built a wide variety of machines for many industries creating valuable intellectual property. Rather than continue to build and sell these products, Bucyrus Erie sold Western Gear Machinery Company’s major product lines to Westech Gear in Lynwood, California, which was formed in 1985 from a former Western Gear division. . Westech offered many Western Gear employees of Everett positions there if they wanted to move to Southern California.
The end of Western equipment
With the closure of the Everett Division, only three of Western Gear’s divisions remained (there were seven when Bucyrus Erie purchased Western Gear in 1982). Bucyrus Erie had already sold or closed the other divisions. The other three were Flight Structures in Jamestown, North Dakota, which designed and built onboard cargo handling equipment for commercial aircraft; Applied Technology at City of Industry, California; and Electrosystems in Brea, California. California divisions built helicopter transmissions and aircraft flight control actuators. In early 1987, Bucyrus Erie sold these remnants of Western Gear to British aerospace company Lucas Industries.
On the positive side, the timing of the shutdown in Everett coincided with an up cycle in employment at Boeing in Everett. The Boeing 747-400 program was behind schedule and needed people experienced in all areas for engineering, office and factory work. Many former Western Gear employees immediately got to work without missing a paycheck. The high level of employment at Boeing has also provided career opportunities for former employees of other companies. Some have chosen to start their own business. For others, the closure was an opportunity to retire.
HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Everett Harbor Commissioners Approve Sale of Land to US Navy for Aircraft Carrier Base May 5, 1987” (by Margaret Riddle), http://www.historylink.org (Accessed November 6, 2021 ); Sandra McDonough, “The Navy Decides Everett” Seattle weather, April 17, 1984, p. 1; Bill Dietrich, “Everett Selected as Base for Naval Group”, Same., August 29, 1985, p. A-1; Bill Dietrich, “Naval Base Everett Moves Full Speed Away”, Same., August 30, 1985, p. A-3; “Everett Schedule”, Same., February 23, 1986, p. A-3; Eric Pryne, “Panel Releases Money for Naval Base Everett”, Same., June 5, 1986, p. A-1; Phil Emmanuel, “288 workers shaken by factory closure”, Same., August 20, 1986, p. H-1; Western Gear Assets Auction Announcement, Same., November 16, 1986, p. H-1; Robert T Nelson, “Is Everett Base Dead?” Seattle post intelligence, July 20, 1986, p. 42; Mike Layton, “A boon for Everett home base? It could turn into bankruptcy”, Same., April 9, 1987, p. 42; Larry Lange and Don Fair, “The Navy Buys 1st Land for carrier base,” Same., July 25, 1986, p. 36; “Western Gear was sold to Lucas Industries,” Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1987 (www.latimes.com).
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