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October, 06

Imported headstones are creating problems for BarreĀ’s manufacturers, because of their cheap price.

Barre city of 9,000 bills, known as the "granite capital of the world," founded in early 20th century from nearby quarries.

Granite manufacturers of Barre, specializing in making headstones and memorials, are finding themselves battling to win in a rapidly changing market, not only rise in cremations are hurting but also the lower prices of their foreign competitors.

"We have to find a way to compete," said Charles Chatot, president of North Barre Granite. "This is Barre gray granite. It's the top gray granite in the world."

Granite industry has made Barre, a boomtown and Vermont's biggest melting pot from last decades, drawing immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Poland and Canada. At their prime time, the manufacturers here employed about 3,000 people.

Today the number is only 1,500, said John P. Castaldo, executive director of the Barre Granite Association, and most of those are in sales or administration. Approximately 300, artisans actually make headstones and memorials, working with heavy machinery, and the carvers who still hand-carve granite not more than seven.

During the last decades, the biggest problem is imported headstones, mostly from China and India, which cost about half as much as those made in Barre.

"The labor costs in China are significantly lower than they are here, and it's taking its toll on the American manufacturers," said Pennie Sabel, president of the International Cemetery and Funeral Association, a trade group.

According to Barre's manufacturers the quality of the imported stones are poor, but to the typical customer the only difference is price. Further, Chinese companies are also producing black granite headstones, which are becoming more popular than gray ones.

"If we weren't doing this," Burke said, "we wouldn't be doing so good right now. Everyone's saying, 'China's bad; it's hurting us.' It's not."

"It hurts," Sabel said. "People have a concept that if you cremate a body you don't need a memorial," although manufacturers here have recently started making headstones that open in the back, allowing families to place urns inside on a shelf.

"Cemetery lots are smaller," said Louis P. Monti Jr., a monument dealer from Marlborough, Mass., who attended a trade show here in August. "They want to make things as small and easy to maintain as possible."

"What's hurting us is the Chinese and the Indians," said Tom Robinson, president of the Elberton Granite Association, which represents about 150 headstone and memorial plants. "We can't really put a number on it, but there's no question we've lost jobs because we don't have the volume of sales we used to have."

"I think we're battling back with a focus on selling Elberton products, fast delivery and good quality while doing business with people you know," Robinson said. "There are no surprises here."

Like Elberton, Barre is trying to reposition itself. The industry is fighting back by pointing to its reputation and educating consumers about the difference between the cheaper imports and Barre's granite and artisanship.

"You can almost smell the roses on this headstone," Richard Tousignant, a salesman at Adams Granite, said of one local product. "This is the best craftsmanship in the world. It's worth it. Would you want your grandparents' monument to be something made in China?"