This Alabama county has among the state’s lowest unemployment. What’s the secret?

on October 31, 2018

If you want to know how to survive a recession and come out looking better, the answer may be in Chambers County.

Just to the north of the Auburn-Opelika area, sitting on the Georgia line, this county 10 years ago had the highest unemployment rate in Alabama. At the height of the recession a year later, Chambers County’s jobless number had doubled to 21.4 percent.

The nation’s economic collapse actually came at the end of a seven-year stretch for Chambers County where it saw more than 10,000 jobs lost to the closing of textile mills, carpentry and insulation plants, as well as its hospital.

Today, the rate is 4.2, one of the lowest in the state. In fact, Chambers County leads the nation in unemployment decline since 2009, with jobless numbers down 72 percent. Over the past 10 years, Chambers County has seen almost 3,500 jobs created and nearly $1 billion in capital investment.

“It was pretty brutal,” Valerie Gray, executive director of the Chambers County Development Authority, said of the time a decade ago. “It wasn’t just a number for me. It was people I know, people my children go to school with, family members, business people, people moving in and out.”

To understand how the county bounced back, you have to understand how bad it got. Just a drive through Lanett, population 6,271, illustrates it. Last Thursday, for example, a lunchtime crowd ambled up to the town’s only food truck, “Da Grub Spot,” which serves up wings, sausage dogs and hamburgers five days a week. Its owner, Clarence Heard, found the perfect place to set up – the former parking lot of the old West Point Stevens Mill along U.S. 29.

“It’s a high traffic place where a lot of people can see you,” Heard said of the lot, where the “Spot’s” grill smoke draws cars, their drivers clutching crumpled bills looking for a savory meal. “We’ve been doing it for two years, and people just say they wish we were open more often.”

The only thing across the highway left of the textile mill, closed in 2004, is its water tower and what the wrecking ball left behind. Yet “Da Grub Spot” is a small reminder that economic activity is alive in the area. Larger reminders are elsewhere.

For decades, textiles were the lifeblood of this region. The plants provided housing, parks, water and sewer, built churches and maintained infrastructure. The company’s middle management filled civic clubs and managed community relief and other outreaches. Then the coming of NAFTA and the migration of textile jobs began, as the number of out-of-work residents rose.

“It was like losing your mother,” Debbie Wood, who has sat on the county commission since 2002, said.

For county leaders, the cupboard was left bare. Chambers County did not have an occupational tax. This meant county leaders were restricted in their ability to offer development incentives in industrial recruitment.

At almost the same moment, more than a little bit of good fortune happened. In West Point, Ga., just over the line, Kia announced in 2006 it was building an automobile manufacturing plant to assemble its midsized SUV. But production wouldn’t begin until late 2009. In the interim, building the plant meant construction job opportunities, a sector that was all but dormant at the time nationally.

Chambers County officials took advantage of perhaps their last and best economic weapon – location. Along a stretch of Interstate 85, the main artery between Montgomery and Atlanta, the county purchased land as a location for an industrial park, anticipating the coming of automotive supply companies. County leadership, after two tries, got from residents the ability to equalize the county sales tax at nine cents. Those funds were used to borrow money to provide infrastructure improvements for the industrial park, something Gray admitted was difficult when there wasn’t an actual project announced in the area.

Wood said it took collaboration from the public and private sector, plus the timely help of others, to get through it.

“For a certain period of time, we had a pipe running above ground near the Interstate that ran our sewage to Opelika,” she said. “They took it from us, and that really saved us.”

t the same time, county government slashed the budget and acted quickly to try and immediately replace as many lost jobs as possible. Wood said she personally made three trips to Korea to lobby for Chambers County. The region specifically targeted Tier 1 auto suppliers, as some displaced textile workers could transition into those jobs quickly, Gray said. Today, almost 2,000 people in Chambers County are employed by the suppliers.

Kia began production in 2009. It now is responsible for creating more than 14,000 jobs through its plant and suppliers. But the county was loathe to find itself depending so greatly on one industry again.

Working the plan

In 2012, its leadership commissioned a study from Garner Economics to identify the area’s best bets for industrial recruiting. It took four months to complete, in the end recommending auto suppliers, food manufacturing, logistics and warehousing and continuing health care.

Commissioning the plan gave leadership a goal, as well as the clear-eyed appraisal of an outsider as to what virtues the county had in attracting more industry.

“That’s important, because living in a community so long, you take your resources for granted,” Gray said. “We just had to work together. This wasn’t the time to place any blame on anyone. I knew we could make it happen. By 2010, we were started to see dirt turning, and people getting hired and making products. And it gave us hope.”

And Chambers County is still attracting business. Valley, for example, anticipates the opening next year of John Soule Foods, a pre-cooked food operation that will employ 150 people in a refurbished textile business building. The company is one of the targets suggested by the study, and an example of the diversification prized by the county’s economic plan.

‘You can’t hardly make it on just one thing anymore’

But like other areas of Alabama, not everybody agrees that the hard times are completely over. Some ask whether the economic incentives offered to draw industry here are keeping the area from coming completely out of the hole. Gray said the county does not offer incentives to companies that use temporary or leased employees, or which pay less than $12.75 an hour.

This is of particular interest locally because of a two-year-old incident at a Chambers County auto supply plant where a female worker was crushed to death by a robot. The victim, 20-year-old Regina Elsea, was a temporary employee with Ajin USA, the county’s largest supplier.

Other residents point to the realities of the economy in Alabama, where wages still lag behind the cost of living.

In LaFayette, the county seat, John Newman’s feed and seed store stands across the street from the courthouse. Newman, 52, opened his store eight years ago, when the economy was at its worst. He sells farming supplies, firearms and ammunition, and other items from a building that has stood at the corner for generations. He said he feels the national economy is getting better – something he gives President Donald Trump credit for. LaFayette is a supportive community with “a lot of good folks,” he said. But he points to empty storefronts and said the economy now is the way it was with his parents’ generation.

“You have to find seven or eight things on the side to make a living,” he said. “You can’t hardly make it on just one thing anymore.”

Charles Hayes, 54, works within sight of the old Langdale Mill in Valley, now being demolished. His parents, like those of his coworkers, toiled in the mills. He said he doesn’t think the area has completely recovered. The median age of Chambers County is 38 years old, according to census figures, with more than 17 percent living below the poverty line. Many older residents spent up to 30 years in the textile mills.

“You’ve got a lot of people who don’t have skills for some of these newer jobs,” Hayes said.

Gray said the county still struggles with the absence of the textile companies through a “culture shock.” After textile maintained so many aspects of life for almost a century, their absence is still scarring for many sectors of the county and will take time to overcome.

But Heard, who is ready to begin another food venture with a business partner in Auburn, said he thinks the economic climate is good. One reason for his optimism, he said, was moving to Houston for five years before coming back to Lanett to begin his business.

“I think there’s a lot of untapped opportunity here,” he said. “Sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes in order to see it. Moving away and coming back, it was easier to see the opportunity that people were not using. So many people are willing to work here. They just don’t see the vision.

“When you’re creating opportunity, it’s not necessarily about how much money you’re making as a businessman. You’re creating opportunity for your community.”

 

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