HACKLEBURG — Mayor Waymon "Whitey" Cochran had one word to describe the massive rebuilt Wrangler Distribution plant that replaced one destroyed by a tornado almost two years ago.
"Impressive," Cochran said. "Everything is state of the art, so modern. It's really something to see."
The plant, along with 80 percent of the small Marion County town of Hackleburg, was destroyed by the April 27, 2011, tornado.
In March 2012, crews began the process of rebuilding the massive structure on U.S. 43, just north of town.
"Wrangler is Hackleburg," said Marion County Commissioner Don Barnwell, who lives in Hackleburg. "I said all along — without Wrangler, we are just a community."
In August 2011, members of the VF Corp. management team announced plans to rebuild the town's largest employer on the site where the distribution center was destroyed. VF Corp. owns Wrangler.
Not only did VF officials announce the plant would be rebuilt, but it was to be bigger, more modern and the company plans to increase employment from 150 to 200.
"Nobody, other than the people right in this town and this area, will ever know just how important that announcement was," Barnwell said. "And now, seeing the actual plant finished, and knowing that it's only a matter of time before all the employees are back in the plant, really eases the pain that this area has been going through since the tornado."
The 150 employees who worked at the plant when it was destroyed have been working in the old Hackleburg sewing plant, which VF Corp. owns, and at a facility in Holly Pond.
Sam Tucker, vice president for human resources for VF Corp., said a few employees are back at work in the new plant and more will begin coming back "as we continue getting the plant operational."
"We began receiving product (jeans) in the facility this week," Tucker said. "We hope to begin shipping out jeans in March."
He said the company's plans are to continue ramping up distribution in the second quarter.
"By mid-year, we hope to have everyone back in the main plant, if not sooner," Tucker said.
Company officials said 15 to 20 people are working in the new plant, but that is expected to increase as more equipment is installed and more jeans are delivered.
Plant manager Wade Hageadorn said in addition to receiving jeans, workers continue to install and test equipment.
"This plant is unbelievable. The conveyer system is 2.5 miles long," said Jeff Baccus, one of the employees who is back working in the new plant. "This is really amazing. It's light yeas ahead of the old plant."
The old plant was built in 1981.
Tucker said it's exciting to see the plant come back on line.
"We are really pleased with the way things are going," Tucker said. "We're ready to get everyone back in the new facility."
He said the company will be shipping women's jeans from Hackleburg to mass retailers such as Wal-Mart, Kmart and VF Factory Outlet stores.
"We plan to reach a maximum annual shipping capacity of 36 million pieces per year," Tucker said.
VF Corp. has more than 30 brands. The company's largest five brands are The North Face®, Wrangler®, Timberland®, Vans®, and Lee®. Other brands include 7 For All Mankind®, Bulwark®, Eagle Creek®, Eastpak®, Ella Moss®, JanSport®, Kipling®, lucy®, Majestic®, Napapijri®, Nautica®, Red Kap®, Reef®, Riders®, Splendid® and Smartwool®. All brands are registered trademarks.
When the powerful EF5 tornado ripped the plant apart, leaving it in a pile of aluminum rubble, there were 13 people inside. One person was killed.
One aspect of the new facility is a new storm shelter area inside the plant. Company officials said the area is surrounded by concrete blocks and steel doors.
Baccus, who lives close to the plant, lost his house in the tornado.
"We had to completely rebuild, but we got back in just before Christmas," he said. "It was time for us to get back home. Just like it's time for our Wrangler family to get back home in the plant."
Cochran said seeing the plant come back to life has been a relief for everyone in town.
"Getting the town back to normal has been a slow process, but things are coming together," Cochran said. "We know it's going to take time, but we are progressing. The plant is a sign of how we are progressing.
"We were devastated (by the tornado), and we had to start all over. We had to crawl before we could walk. Now, with the plant finished, we're able to take bigger steps.
"Wrangler adds to the rebirth of our town."
Tom Smith can be reached at 256-740-5757 or tom.smith@TimesDaily.com.