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Keener & Sons closes after 87 years

November 04, 2007|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

After 87 years in business, the Keener name is no longer among the active homebuilders of Washington County.

"All things come to an end, good and bad," said Tim Keener, president of R. B. Keener & Sons Inc., which went out of business Oct. 31.

The reasons range from Keener's age - he will soon be 63 - to trouble finding skilled workers, to governmental decisions that make homebuilding harder, to the current economic downturn. "It's due to a lot of pressures beyond our control," he said.

The company was founded in 1920 by Keener's grandfather, Martin "M.B." Keener.

M.B. Keener was a Mennonite from the Paramount area north of Hagerstown, said Russell B. Keener, 92, who followed his father in the business. Married in 1910, young M.B. chose carpentry over farming for a trade, Keener said.

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"He was putting his tools on a bicycle and riding it over town" going with other guys from job to job as itinerant carpenters, he said. Soon after going into business for himself, he said, M.B. set the "fair and economical" standards that would guide the company always and coined the "Keener-bilt" phrase by which it is still known.

While a student at Hagerstown High School, Russell worked with his father in the summers. The first job he remembers working on was helping to build the band shell in Hagerstown City Park, followed by a Catholic school and Statton's furniture factory.

After Russell graduated in 1933, M.B. sent him off to Drexel Institute of Technology for the "education he didn't have." There, Russell pursued a degree in civil engineering, but returned home to help run the business after his father took sick.

The company became M.B. Keener & Son in 1940.

"We built practically half of Fountainhead," Russell Keener said, referring to the upscale neighborhood along Hagerstown's northern edge. After M.B. retired in 1957, Russell became president. In the 1970s, two of Russell's sons, Tim and Keith, joined the business.

The business stayed small, never having more than 11 or 12 employees, including the Keeners.

Each of the three - Russell in 1977, Tim in 1986 and Keith in 1987 - served as president of the Home Builders Association of Washington County.

About 15 years ago, recalled Tim Keener, the business climate began to change.

He said it got harder to find people who want to work in construction. He blames the problem, which continues, on economic circumstances that forced both spouses in many families to go to work, "so the children are pretty much left to themselves, so they don't have a work ethic."

For housing contractors, other problems include the county government's decision to allow fewer homes to be built on land in rural areas, and the adoption of an excise tax on new construction. The excise tax, coupled with utility connection fees, requires builders to spend several thousand dollars "before you turn the first shovelful of dirt," Tim Keener said.

Another problem for small homebuilders such as Keener is that the wave of building in the county the past few years forced land prices to climb dramatically. Consequently, he said, single lot sales are rare and large out-of-town developers "with deep pockets" have been the only ones able to afford to buy whole farms for development.

So "most of the small custom builders have gone back to home improvement work because of the lack of lots, and others have moved to other parts of the region, where startup costs aren't as high," he said.

His company has kept going, mostly building additions and remodelling. It finished its last house, a 6,000-square-foot all-brick one-story, nearly a year ago on land a local couple bought years ago and wanted to build on after they retired.

Like his sons, Russell Keener is sad but resigned to the fact that the three-generation business had to close.

"Well, it's one of those things," he said. "But the people, our customers through the years, deserve a thank you. Some of the people we worked with and for, the ones who came and had us build a second house for them later, they deserve some thanks.

"I have good feelings," he said, "but it's one of those things you wish it could have gone on."

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