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TAKING COMPETITORS TO THE CLEANERS\ TAX BREAK FOR HANGERS' EARTH-FRIENDLY BUT COSTLY TECHNIQUE HAS SOME RIVALS STAMING
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TAKING COMPETITORS TO THE CLEANERS\ TAX BREAK FOR HANGERS' EARTH-FRIENDLY BUT COSTLY TECHNIQUE HAS SOME RIVALS STAMING

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The newest dry-cleaning chain in Guilford County has won over environmentalists with an earth-friendly cleaning process, but the company isn't making any friends inside the industry.

Instead, Hangers Cleaners has found itself at the heart of a controversy over how the state should encourage private cleaners to move away from the use of hazardous chemicals.The Raleigh-based Hangers, which has opened 10 stores in Greensboro since May, benefits from state tax breaks aimed at urging North Carolina cleaners to phase out the older, more hazardous cleaning method.

But critics say Hangers' parent company, Micell Technologies, is hardly dedicated to that same goal.

Rather than selling its innovative new machines to cleaners across the state, Micell requires interested stores to become Hangers franchises. That's prohibitively expensive for many smaller operations, some area cleaners say.

``For a single cleaners, it's too expensive,' said Hope Taylor, executive director of the lobbying group N.C. Clean Water Fund. 'In many rural areas, where we we've seen most of the worst offenders (of mistreatment of hazardous chemicals), it's going to be a problem to open a Hangers franchise.'

Micell officials, meanwhile, say the process they developed, like any new technology, needs to be properly nurtured, and that can only happen under the franchise approach.

``There's a significant public awareness campaign needed to make this a success,' said Gena Arthur, a spokeswoman for the company, which is backed by a major investment from Greensboro textile company Unifi Inc. ``It's not viable to expect each cleaners to recreate the wheel in each market.'

Critics point to the way Hangers came to Greensboro as evidence that the technology isn't one for mom-and-pop operations.

What is now one of the franchise's busiest markets was made possible through the partnering of two high-level Micell executives with the owner of five Master Kleen stores in the city.

Micell chief executive Ken Huggins and financial officer Roger Mustian invested with Charles Cheek, the owner of the Master Kleens.

Cheek, 58, said the partnering allowed to him to step back from a business he has been in for 41 years while benefiting the environment at the same time.

``The biggest part of the decision was, at my age, I wanted to retire,' Cheek said. 'This gave me an exit while doing something that's environmentally friendly. In the long term, this method is much better and safer for the environment.'

Even competitors and critics don't debate that point.

Just about everyone in the industry seems to agree that, one, the traditional process of cleaning clothes is hazardous and needs to be improved; and, two, that Hangers' method is a safer alternative to that process.

Developed by UNC and N.C. State professor Joseph DeSimone, Micell's technology involves cleaning clothes with liquid carbon dioxide rather than perchloroethylene. Better known as ``perc,' the traditional cleaning solvent is believed to cause cancer, and it damages the liver and kidneys, state regulators say.

Although the chemical has been declared hazardous and is required to be handled with care, a mistake or leak can be costly, as some Marine families stationed at Camp LeJeune found out recently. An estimated 10,000 children who were born there between 1968 and 1985 consumed water thought to be contaminated with perc.

Last month, Marine officials stepped up efforts to find the families because of heightened concern that perc may cause leukemia and birth defects in children exposed to it.

The carbon dioxide method, meanwhile, uses the same chemical found in soft drinks and combines it with another cleaning agent.

``The difference between carbon dioxide and perc is like the difference between night and day. It's that drastic,' said Bill Meyer, a regulator with the state Department of the Environment and Natural Resources. ``If we could instantly say to all the cleaners in North Carolina that they had to switch to carbon dioxide, we'd solve a lot of problems.'

With so much concern about the hazards of perc, Micell, which developed and tested its methods in the late 1990s, quickly gained the attention of state government last year.

The state spends a lot of money dealing with hazardous site clean-up, and the new method presented a chance to avoid some headaches, Myers said.

So earlier this year, Rep. Pryor Gibson, D-Montgomery, introduced a bill that would offer a 20 percent tax break on the purchase of Micell equipment or other types of equipment that fit criteria of environmental safety. Although other companies are experimenting with other nonhazardous methods, Micell is the only company taking advantage of the credit, Meyer said.

But ``this was not a bill for Micell Technologies,' said Gibson, a staunch advocate of better dry-cleaning methods. ``They've developed a cleaner way to do dry-cleaning, and we're trying to encourage that. If Hangers is holding out this tax credit for themselves, than more power to them.'

But what about small stores that want to clean up their act?

To become a Hangers franchise, a single store would have to shell out more than $250,000, quite a sum in a mom-and-pop-dominated business. An even bigger roadblock is that many small cleaners would like to keep their names, which for some have been valuable assets for decades.

Sure, Hangers' approach may be safer for the environment, as the company's sales pitch suggests. But does the company's business approach really promote the goal of a cleaner earth?

``It's unfortunate that Micell has elected to market it through an exclusive franchise,' said Sam Taylor, a Raleigh-based attorney for the state's dry-cleaning association. ``The best thing for the industry would be if it were universally available.'

The other option for small cleaners wanting to become more earth-friendly is to switch to a more modern perc process or to use what the industry calls wet-cleaning, which has been recognized as another method cleaner than perc. But there aren't tax breaks for either of those alternatives.

``Certainly wet-cleaning should have a tax break because that can be expensive,' said Chris Edwards, the owner of A Cleaner World, a 55-store franchise in High Point. Like other folks in the industry, Edwards says he didn't oppose the tax credit bill to avoid garnering opposition for a another bill important to the industry passed this year.

Government officials and Micell executives, meanwhile, defend the tax credit and stand up for Micell's business approach.

``This is the best thing for the environment,' Meyer, the DENR official, said of the tax credit. ``It's not our job to worry about what happens in the market.'

And Micell folks say that it is indeed possible for small, independent stores to become Hangers franchises without the help of Micell executives. In Wake Forest, for example, an independently owned Hangers store is expected to open later this year.

Hangers officials, meanwhile, argue that a store that can't afford to become a Hangers franchise probably couldn't afford to buy one of Micell's $180,000 machines, anyway.

``Like any other financial decision, you've got to be certain you're doing enough business to justify it,' Mustian said. ``It's a business decision.'

Should Micell, which has grown to 43 stores, successfully fend off the criticism it has garnered over the tax break, it certainly will have other fish to fry. Aside from the expense of its machinery, skeptics say carbon dioxide cleaning isn't yet as effective as perc and that Hangers' approach in Greensboro, of cleaning at a plant away from the stores, can't possibly be as fast.

Still, in just a few months the company experienced at least mild success, adding several stores and capturing an estimated 30 percent of the Greensboro market. The company has plans to grow to 150 stores nationwide in the near future.

But if many who are close to the situation have their wish, Hangers soon will have strong competition in the realm of environmentally sound dry-cleaners.

``We'll let the market take care of itself,' Meyer said. ``Our hope is that, as a result of this, that a variety of other new technologies come up that can qualify under this tax credit.'\ \ Contact Eric Heisler at 373-7024 or eheisler@news-record.com

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