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Hundreds will lose their jobs in Platte County

by Chris Kamler
Landmark reporter

The digital age can count a long-time Platte County business as one of its latest casualties. Lifetouch Publishing on Ambassador Drive near the airport will close its doors for the final time on Dec. 1, according to numerous sources employed at the plant and later confirmed by a spokesperson within Lifetouch.

The employees were notified by representatives of the company on Wednesday.

The publishing plant, which seasonally employs up to 500 people during school yearbook season and about 150 employees year-around, will be moving all yearbook publishing operations to its sister facility in Loves Park, Illinois effective this upcoming school yearbook season.

A spokesperson for Lifetouch in Eden Prairie, Minn. confirmed to The Landmark that layoffs will occur beginning next month and the plant will be closed for good on Dec. 1.

In its prime, the Loves Park and Kansas City facilities printed over 80% of the school yearbooks in the country. The plant is closing to take advantage of “technology efficiencies” and due to the downturn in profitability of selling books and paper.

In addition to school yearbooks, the plant has also produced church directories and paperback books.

In an email to Lifetouch employees obtained by The Landmark, the move was caused by an effort toward “cost efficiencies.”

“We have determined consolidating our yearbook production to Loves Park, IL, will bring costs in line with revenues. Accordingly, today, we announced the closure of the Kansas City plant.”

Kelvin Miller, a media spokesperson with Lifetouch's corporate offices in Eden Prairie, offered no additional information other than to say the employees will remain on staff until Dec. 1 when the plant would close. He did say the closing was “regrettable” but could offer no additional information on why the plant was closed.

The decision came as news to the City of Kansas City. When reached by The Landmark, representatives for city council member Ed Ford and Mayor Sly James were both unaware of the announcement by Lifetouch. There had been no efforts by Lifetouch to reach out to the city to suggest alternatives to closing the plant.

At its peak when yearbooks were mostly assembled by hand, the plant employed nearly 1,000 seasonal employees in its 110,000 square feet facility. Many employees had worked there for decades until the early 2000's, when the digital revolution made computerization and scanning more prevalent. This caused less of a need for manual adjustments to books.

Even the massive presses that printed the sheets of headshots got smaller and smaller. With Lifetouch moving to smaller presses, fewer people were needed to print the pages and assemble the books.

At some point, two publishing plants would be too many and one of them had to go. Wednesday morning, the Kansas City plant found out it would be the one to close.

The simple fact remained that people bought fewer books and sites like Snapfish.com made creating customized books easier and cheaper. Yearbooks took the hit. Fewer books plus the advancement of technology makes these moves by Lifetouch inevitable, but still shocking to the employees that were on staff there.

“There was dead silence over the entire room,” Bill White, an 11-year veteran of the plant said, “We were stunned speechless. Then the tears started.”

The technology used in the plant when it first opened is a stark contrast to the digital presses used today that are the size of a small desk. Twenty years ago, assemblers would often develop barrels of film in dark rooms then take the photos to be manually cropped and placed on paper to be scanned. Now, the entire process can be done with a single computer and a digital press.

Many printing facilities across the country are going out of business due to the advancements in technology, so Lifetouch isn’t alone. Just last week, Kansas City printer Barton Nelson company shuttered its doors after defaulting on a loan, leaving most of its employees without a final paycheck.

At least those at Lifetouch have a few weeks to get things together.

Susan Crowe, whose husband recently relocated to Kansas City for a job at the plant, said they will make due.

“My husband was working part time at another company and he is going to see if they will make a great offer, otherwise will be like everyone else looking for full-time employment.”

All this serves as little consolation to the 150 full time employees and the manufacturing facility that will be empty after Dec. 1.

Jennifer Miller, who worked there for four years and whose husband, Matt, was a press operator for the past 15 years said: “It really was the feeling of family there. And I think that seasonals as well felt that way and that's why many of them came back each year.”

Those “seasonals” would work the yearbook season from December through June when photos would stream in from schools, colleges and churches around the country and world. The seasonals would then adjust and alter those photos so they were all the same size and the names all matched up with the headshots.

The plant began over 20 years ago in the Riverside bottoms but moved to its current location near the airport after the flood of 1993 forced relocation. The building is still under lease to Lifetouch for two more years, but a company spokesperson said at this time there are no plans for the building after Dec. 1.

Lifetouch is one of the largest employee-owned companies in the country and their benefits package allowed seasonal employees to own a piece of the company. This is a big reason why folks who only worked six months assembling books or shipping them out to schools came back year-after-year.

Jeremy McCannon, who worked in the warehouse storing partial pallets of books until they could be assembled, summarized his time at Lifetouch like this, “It is an experience that is lightning in a bottle and won't be duplicated. Now it all looks different. The machinery, the walls, the rolls of paper, and sadly even the people.”

McCannon described the decision by Lifetouch to close the Kansas City plant as “abandonment.”