CUMBERLAND, MD. -- Cumberland Steel Co., operating since 1898, will close by the end of September, leaving 47 employes without work, it was announced last week by company president and Mayor George Wyckoff Jr. and union president Charles Johnson.

A rapidly declining market, imports and increased raw material costs were blamed for the shutdown of the mill.

"It's one hell of a situation," Johnson told the Cumberland Times-News on Friday. "Business has been going down hill since 1980. We can't blame management; it's the marketplace."

Johnson said the company's sales and orders have dropped sharply in the face of foreign competition.

"This is a very, very difficult thing to do," said Wyckoff.

The company, which has produced precision-turned, ground and polished steel bars, has begun to notify suppliers and customers. Work will continue until current contracts are completed.

The company has sold its equipment to an undisclosed out-of-town firm and hopes to sell the mill buildings to pay creditors, Wyckoff said.

"We will be able to pay our bills and take care of our obligations to our people," Wyckoff said.

The mill's labor contract, with International Association of Machinists Local 489, expires Aug. 31.

Management asked earlier last week for $2.10-an-hour wage concessions but company negotiators later withdrew the request and said the concessions would not be sufficient to save the mill.

Wyckoff offered to sell the plant to the union, but the membership voted to reject that offer. He has also offered to help the workers find new jobs.

"They would have had to cut their wages in half. It would be unfair to ask people to do that," the mayor said. "These guys have done excellent work and I will do anything I can to help them relocate. I hate to hurt them, but ... it's my name that is on the loan papers with the bank."

Wyckoff said a shift in plant locations has moved 80 percent of the company's business to the Chicago area. "It costs $50 a ton for us to operate here and ship," Wyckoff said.

Cumberland Steel's annual sales have slipped from $10 million at its peak to about $400,000 last year.

The mill had employed 100 people two years ago before layoffs reduced the work force to 33 union workers and a management staf