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'Basket Village' Finds Life After Longaberger

Sun, 10/21/2012 - 2:11pm
Jacob Kanclerz, The Columbus Dispatch - Associated Press

DRESDEN, Ohio (AP) -- In the heart of Dresden sits the world's largest basket, a woven wooden basket that's 48 feet long and 23 feet tall.

It's a tribute to the Longaberger Co.'s mark on Dresden, which is known as "Basket Village U.S.A."

That moniker is being tested as Longaberger goes through a major transition that has seen its business sliced substantially. The company, founded in 1976, has more than $100 million in annual sales — according to trade publication Direct Selling News — and 1,000 employees, but those numbers are far smaller than in 2000, when the company's $1 billion in sales provided employment for 8,000 people.

The company's troubles have prompted Dresden, a village of 1,529 in the hills of Muskingum County east of Columbus, to broaden its view. Businesses and residents are attempting to rebrand the community as a getaway from the busy life, selling its quaint village atmosphere, and also as a one-stop destination for shopping, outdoor activities and other attractions in Muskingum County.

"We are in the post-Longaberger era now," said Marin Starr, owner of two bed-and-breakfasts in town, the Pines of Dresden and the Ivy. "People come for the small-town atmosphere."

Longaberger has referred to itself as an American success story, but recent events have cut against that grain. The company removed its retail and office presence from the village during the past decade, centralizing operations at the Longaberger Homestead, the company's main retail and manufacturing hub in nearby Frazeysburg.

Further, Longaberger's decision to sell foreign-made pottery tarnished the company's image and upset shop owners who carried the products. Longaberger has since announced plans to bring pottery making back to the United States.

"'I thought they were a made-in-the-U.S. company,'" Karen Bailey, owner of Bailey's Home Harbor, would overhear customers say as they put Longaberger pottery back on the shelf. She now carries both Longaberger and U.S.-made pottery.

Dresden also has felt the effects of Longaberger's changing reputation.

"(People) assume Dresden is part of Longaberger and that it's all baskets," said Tammy Delancey, who owns three stores in Dresden and one each in Berlin and Zanesville. Some people thought the company shut down, and the village along with it, she said.

Moving the pottery lines back to the U.S. will take at least two years, and the products probably will be made at the Longaberger Homestead, obtained from a pottery manufacturer in eastern Ohio, or a combination of the two, said Russell Mack, spokesman for Longaberger.

"Our most-attractive option is to do it ourselves in eastern Ohio," he said.

Making pottery locally has its benefits — natural gas needed to power pottery production is cheap and abundant in the area — and Mack said the company also has an obligation to the region.

Tami Longaberger, president and CEO of the company, "feels a deep responsibility to central Ohio — her roots run deep there," Mack said.

Dresden shop owners acknowledge the benefits of the 500 or so potential jobs, but they've learned not to look solely to Longaberger to stimulate the local economy.

"We're hopeful for them to find ways to employ in the area," said Krysten Smart, manager of the Charm of Dresden, a retail shop along Main Street. "But we aren't waiting for Longaberger."

The economy has picked up in Dresden recently, and many shop owners said they've received more business from the local area, including Frazeysburg, Newark, Zanesville and Columbus.

The trend toward "staycations" has been a boon for Dresden, said Gail Betts, owner of Heart of the Home. Her shop on Main Street has been open for 14 years.

The village has marketed itself differently lately, highlighting the small-town atmosphere and local amenities.

"Ninety percent of the people came (to our bed-and-breakfast) for Longaberger when we started" six years ago, Starr said. "Now about 50 to 60 percent of the people are here for Longaberger."

The Wilds in Zanesville, Amish country to the north, and hunting and boating opportunities nearby draw visitors.

Some residents — and grudgingly, business owners — will admit that tourism isn't the same as it was during Longaberger's heyday. The buses that used to line Main Street bringing thousands to Dresden still come, but not as often.

There are notable holes along Main Street, including the former Longaberger Patio Shops, which sit directly across from a large lot reserved for buses. Many shops that sold "retired" baskets closed up.

"It looks empty, but there's still a lot of stores," said Jeff Snyder, owner of the Basket Guy on Main Street. "You can hit 15 or 20 walking down the street."

Tina Miller, who owns the bed-and-breakfast Sarah's House, said business has been down overall since she and her husband opened in 2005. But they opened up a store selling antiques four months ago, and sales have increased each month.

"We wouldn't have opened it if we didn't think (business) was coming back," she said.

But Longaberger's presence still looms large over Dresden.

Case in point: The company leased out some of its empty space at its facilities in Frazeysburg to Fanatics Inc., a licensed sports merchandiser. The move, which is expected to bring 270 jobs to the area, was praised by Dresden business owners.

Longaberger's Mack said the company is seeking opportunities to lease parts of its campus as a way to create jobs in the region.

"We have more space in the distribution and manufacturing area than we need," Mack said of Longaberger's nine buildings and 1.74 million square feet in Frazeysburg. "We want to put the space to work."

But many want Dresden to forge ahead, crafting its own identity.

"We'll always be known for Longaberger putting us on the map," Starr said. "But keeping us on the map won't be Longaberger."

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