America's oldest suit maker is shutting down after 142 years.
The owners of Hardwick Clothes told employees last week it will close down its Cleveland, Tennessee, production plant by the end of the month, closing the oldest continually operating manufacturer in Bradley County. The shutdown will mean job losses for 129 employees who work in Hardwick's 174,000-square-foot plant on Old Tasso Road.
Hardwick Tactical Corp. and Puerto Rico Industries for the Blind Corp., the nonprofit agency that bought the apparel mill nearly three years ago, filed an official notice with the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development about its plans to permanently close the plant by Sept. 30.
Douglas Berry, vice president of economic development for the Cleveland/Bradley County Chamber of Commerce, said the closing would mean "a sad day" for Cleveland.
"It did not come as a surprise given the dramatic loss of textile operations across the U.S. over the past 25 years," Berry said by phone. "Foreign competition from low-wage countries made it difficult, if not impossible, to operate in the U.S. When you factor in recent supply chain disruptions and increasing material and labor costs the business was facing, it is not hard to understand the decision, as unfortunate as it is for the community and the employees."
Founded in 1880 as the Cleveland Woolen Mills by C.L. Hardwick, Hardwick Clothes is the oldest maker of tailored clothing in America and the second-oldest business in Bradley County behind only the Cleveland Daily Banner.
The mill had shifted from making men's suits to producing uniforms for the military under the Federal Ability One program. But the costs of operations reportedly became too high to sustain the operation.
Allan Jones, a Cleveland, Tennessee, businessman who founded the payday lender Check Into Cash, bought Hardwick Clothes out of bankruptcy for $1.9 million in 2014 and tried to revive the suit-making business with new investments and an attempt to add its own retail stores, including an outlet in the Hamilton Corner shopping center on Gunbarrel Road. Jones increased advertising to promote the Hardwick brand and hired the former head of sales at Hart Schaffner & Marx, Bruce Bellusci, to head the operations.
But by the end of 2019, Jones decided to sell Hardwick Clothing to a Puerto Rico company that had hoped to save the company and hire more workers through a federal program designed to employ disabled workers.
"We did everything we could to upgrade and keep the business going, and we hired the best team to be successful, but it's really hard to get people willing to sew these days, so we decided to sell the business to help keep it going," Jones said.
Puerto Rico Industries for the Blind shifted the apparel plant to making uniforms for the U.S. Army, but the nonprofit organization is now shutting down its operations in Cleveland.
The shutdown is the third plant closing in Southeast Tennessee in the past four months and, combined with other job cuts at U.S. Xpress Enterprises, brings the total number of layoffs in the region to more than 700 employees in the Chattanooga region since May.
Last month, Hawker Powersource, a battery production plant in Ooltewah, shut down and laid off 165 employees when its parent company decided to switch to more maintenance-free batteries made elsewhere. In June, Waupaca Foundry shut down most of its automotive castings plant in Etowah, idling 540 employees as it shifts production to other Waupaca plants. U.S. Xpress has cut 140 jobs since May to help improve its bottom line amid projections of a slower trucking market.
Tennessee's local rapid response coordinator and members of the labor department's business services team met with Hardwick managers Tuesday to discuss available options for displaced employees.
"From that meeting, they could determine a plan for the rapid response and possibly a job fair," Chris Cannon, assistant administrator for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said in a statement Tuesday.
Despite the recent plant closings, unemployment in Bradley County still fell during July to 4.1%, down from 4.5% in June, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
"The good news for the individuals losing their jobs at Hardwick is that virtually every manufacturer in the region has open positions, and they are willing to go to the employees to discuss employment opportunities," Berry said.