As recession persists, 1 rural town clings to life

AP News
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Posted: Apr 27, 2011 3:57 PM
As recession persists, 1 rural town clings to life

This town of 1,600 used to live by the steady thump, whirr and whistle of the looms in its giant textile mills, churning out socks and yarn to be used by other mills in a vast region that stretched from the Appalachian foothills to the coastal plains of the Carolinas.

The mills and the jobs they created led to decades of economic stability that earned Whitmire the nickname "Pearl of the Piedmont."

Now the last of those plants is gone, leaving the town caught between two forces of decline: the evaporation of its job and tax base, and a recession that has hammered governments at all levels.

The plunge in government tax revenue for most states and their resulting budget crises means Whitmire and other small towns across the U.S. are receiving less assistance than they might otherwise get when a major employer packs up and leaves.

State grants have dried up because South Carolina state government must cut hundreds of millions of dollars from its own budget. Meanwhile, the federal stimulus program that provided tens of billions of dollars to local communities is ending, and Congress has shifted into a cost-cutting mode as it struggles to contain the federal debt.

Those cutbacks in state and federal assistance have consequences for small towns on the margins of the economy, where the recession remains a daily reality.

At first glance, Whitmire, about midway between Columbia and Spartanburg, doesn't look like a town in trouble. The quiet is broken only by passing log trucks or 18-wheelers and the on-the-hour recorded gospel music emanating from the Baptist church.

A recent streetscaping project gave the two blocks of Main Street a nostalgic feel, but that work was paid for with the kind of grants that have dried up in the recession.

A closer look illustrates Whitmire's struggles.

Its budget has been cut nearly in half, from about $1 million to $550,000, in about five years. The town's payroll has taken a similar whack, with just 15 employees left to patrol the streets, pick up trash and keep the water plant running.

"We're only about 1,500 people, so everybody knows everybody else. Some of these people had worked for the city a very long time," said Chrystal Harsha, who has spent eight years as a town councilwoman.

Whitmire and small, rural towns like it were part of the first wave of places staggered by the Great Recession.

Countless towns and cities followed as the recession intensified, discovering that it can be nearly impossible to keep offering the same level of services without raising taxes or fees on residents, many of whom are jobless or working part-time, low-wage jobs just to pay the rent or mortgage.

A 2009 report from the National League of Cities provided little comfort, finding that cities across the country could face combined shortfalls of $53 billion by the end of 2012.

One in four cities surveyed last October already had made cuts in public safety. Four in five had cut at least some employees, while half had frozen salaries or put in place some kind of wage cut, according to the report.

At the same time, city governments are facing resistance to tax increases, in part because the recession and persistently high unemployment make it more difficult for residents to reach deeper into their pockets. Even so, 40 percent of surveyed cities raised fees last year to help maintain services.

"I kind of smile sometimes or laugh at these people who say they don't want any government," said Jim Brainard, mayor of Carmel, Ind., and a trustee for the League of Cities. "OK, they don't want public water systems or roads or streets or police protection. If their house burns down, they don't want a fire truck to show up? That's really what local government does."

Whitmire's decline started a decade ago when the giant J.P. Stevens mill, which paid half the town's taxes, closed. The bad news peaked in 2009 when the Renfro Corp. took just 30 days to close what locals called the "sock plant," tossing 570 people out of work and taking away half the water plant's business.

The town listed the empty Renfro plant on a state registry that offers buildings to prospective clients. Mayor Tim Carroll recently checked the site and found about 500 similar buildings listed in South Carolina.

The plant's closing set in motion a chain of heart-wrenching events for the mayor and town council, including a hike in water rates that sent bills from about $30 a month to $70. The town also started laying off workers.

The casualties of the sock plant shutdown include Becky Ellison, who now wonders whether she will ever find another job.

"It seems the more you try to better yourself, the more you get kicked around," said Ellison, a 1986 graduate of Whitmire High School.

Working at the Renfro plant was the best job of her life. Ellison took home about $350 a week doing quality control, checking the work of other employees. The job gave her affordable health and dental insurance. She worked there for three years before the plant closed, but didn't have much in savings and hasn't been able to find another job.

Now she's staring at a water bill that has doubled and other expenses while making just $185 a week on unemployment as she goes back to school for an associate's degree in administrative office technology.

"It is either eat, or pay my water bill. And I've got to eat," Ellison said.

It's the plight of residents such as Ellison that has caused Carroll and the rest of the town council to put off considering any kind of general tax increase. But if revenue falls further, he figures it will have to be considered, although he also knows it could lead to an emotional debate that could split the close-knit community.

"It's going to have to come to the point of either raising taxes or quitting services and let the people decide which one they want to do," said Carroll, who has lived in the town for 25 years.

Michael Miller is among those who can remember better days, thanks to a post-World War II boom that drew textile mills to Whitmire and the nearby Enoree River.

More than 50 years ago, Miller's father opened a grocery store, Joe's Market, on Main Street, and employed more than a half-dozen people. Miller now runs it in a different location with just a couple of employees.

He plans to run the grocery store as long as he can. But during the long wait between customers, he can't help but think a future for his beloved town is dim.

"I'll just ride things out, I guess, unless we get some kind of industry here," he said. "And I don't see that happening."