Plastics companies are everywhere you turn in Leominster, Mass., some in modern industrial parks, but many tucked into old residential neighborhoods. Where else can you find a street named Viscoloid Avenue?
A city of 45,000 people, Leominster is about 40 miles west of Boston. But this gritty town that pioneered plastics mass production might as well be 40 light-years away. Boston has Fenway Park and Beacon Hill. Leominster has the National Plastics Center and the plastic pink flamingo.
Leominsterians are proud of the city's strong identity in plastics. Highway signs welcome motorists to the Pioneer Plastics City. The town also is famous as the birthplace of Johnny Appleseed.
One out of every three factories in Leominster makes plastics or rubber goods. About 1,400 people work at those 35 plants, where the average annual wage is around $38,000.
Most of the companies are small molding shops, said Scott Amos, the city's economic development director. Most have fewer than 50 employees.
Richard Flannagan, a Leominster native who owns mold maker Stan-Cast Corp., said companies have to move forward and change.
“You would be able to find some companies that are still molding combs. But I think the companies that are positioning themselves for the future, that are looking down the road to what is around the next bend, they are looking to products that are more sophisticated,” said Flannagan, who started as a toolmaker in 1963.
Tough times in the plastic housewares industry hit Leominster in recent years, with the closing of Tucker Housewares, Tamor Plastics Corp. and Holiday Housewares Inc. Union Products Inc., best known for the pink flamingo, closed last year, then was purchased by an out-of-state firm.
Amos said increased automation has cut production jobs at some local plastics processors. But Leominster-area companies continue to hire people skilled in engineering and processing, he said.
“A lot of these companies are integrating one-stop-shop kind of mentalities, where they'll actually design and partner and create the whole process, as opposed to just building the mold and making the piece,” Amos said in an interview in Leominster.
Some companies are diversifying into hot markets such as medical.
One example is injection molding firm Mar-Lee Cos., which has moved into manufacturing implanted parts that are absorbed into the body.
“It's a huge growth industry and you have a great pool of customers to pull from, with all the research and development companies that are along the [Interstate] 495 belt” around Boston, Amos said. Plastics processors also can partner with University of Massachusetts campuses in Amherst, Lowell and Worcester.
A good location, right off state Route 2 and near I-190, has helped Leominster retain industry and become a major retail center. The local economy is more diverse these days.
“Today, plastics is still important,” Flannagan said. “Is it as important as it was in the 1950s through the 1970s? The answer's no. But Leominster does continue to grow. It's a strong community that enjoys the benefits of a great geographical location and is very accessible.”
Leominster can boast of a colorful plastics history. In 1930, Foster Grant Co. imported an Eckert and Ziegler injection molding machine from Germany and locked it away in what was cryptically dubbed “the mystery room.” Engineers tinkered away and developed a Foster Grant version.
The company built its own machines. Molding production began in mid-1934. The Foster Grant comb has reached legendary status as the first commercially available injection molded product. By 1938, Foster Grant was running more than 100 injection presses in Leominster.
Fast-forward to the early 1990s, and Foster Grant filed for bankruptcy. New owners bought the technical products division, which remains in Leominster as Fosta-Tek Optics Inc. making lenses and optical products for industrial and military customers.