After 140 years in the Elm City, U.S. Repeating Arms Co. is closing its Winchester rifle factory, leaving 186 workers potentially jobless and city officials scrambling for solutions.

The Belgian-owned company, formerly known as the Winchester Rifle Company, told union representatives Friday that it will close its New Haven operations March 31 due to intense foreign competition and a decrease in sales of the Winchester rifle, popular with frontiersmen during the late 19th century, said Everett Corey, directing business representative for District Lodge 26.

“This is something we have feared for a while,” Corey said at a press conference in Hamden Tuesday. “Today is a sad day … [but] we have begun reaching out. Our focus right now is to save jobs.”

City officials are currently trying to find a buyer for the plant, which employed more than 15,000 people during its heyday in the 1940s and has produced millions of Winchester rifles, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said at the press conference. He said the city has done all it can to keep the factory in the city over the last 20 years by offering tax discounts and subsidies and will now work to ensure that workers continue to have stable jobs.

“This is personal,” DeStefano said. “This has been a struggle for these workers and this company and this community for 20 years to keep this company going.”

In a global economy where rifles can be produced more cheaply in Asia and Latin America, DeStefano said New Haven can still remain competitive despite rising manufacturing costs and should not abandon its factories.

“These companies are able to compete when they take advantage of a unique niche,” he said. “The best advantage that the city can offer is this workforce, a skilled, dependable workforce.”

But Yale Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand said the city must look to industries other than manufacturing to sustain economic vitality.

“USRAC’s demise underscores the importance of a sustainable economic strategy built on New Haven’s assets of higher education, research and medical care,” Morand said. “New Haven’s past was guns to fight wars and hunt animals. Its future is healing wounds and curing disease.”

Although no specific companies were named at the press conference, Corey said a list of potential buyers has been established, and further negotiations will take place throughout the next few months. New Haven Chief Economic Development Officer Kelly Murphy said city officials have been searching for buyers since USRAC first hinted it would close its New Haven operations.

“For the last couple of months we’ve been looking at attracting buyers for the factory,” Murphy said. “We’re seeking the best compensation for the workers and providing job placement, so we’re operating on a number of fronts.”

But amid all the talk of buyers and new life for the factory, workers said they are not optimistic about the factory’s future.

Local 609 President John Reynolds, who has worked for the company for 41 years, said he thinks the likelihood that someone may buy the factory is low.

The announcement did not come as a surprise to factory workers, Local 609 Secretary Paula Leake said.

“It was sort of expected, the way they’ve been moving things out,” said Leake, who has been employed at the factory for 11 years.

Yale School of Management professor Douglas Rae, who formerly served as the city’s chief administrative officer, said that although the closing of the Winchester factory is unfortunate, the economic ramifications may not be as severe as they seem.

“Winchester has not been an important employer since the 1979 strike, where they withdrew most of their resources from the New Haven facilities,” Rae said. “It’s important symbolically, but this last thing is not really that big of a hit for us.”

The factory, which was formerly owned by Olin Corp. of Missouri, was bought out by the Herstal Group in the late 1970s. The license to produce Winchester rifles, which remains between Olin and USRAC, is due to expire in 2007.

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