Few jobs in rural Wilcox County

Wilcox County Courthouse (Built 1857), Camden, Alabama.

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: While the banks might be getting healthier, the employment picture is still simply awful. The Labor Department says employers shed 539,000 jobs last month. The unemployment rate hit a 25-year high. When the economy first turned south, and we knew we were in for some long-term trouble, the inevitable comparisons to the Great Depression began. Of course, nationally, unemployment isn't anywhere close to the 1930's, when a quarter of the working population couldn't get a job. But at the local level you can easily find those comparisons. Tanya Ott takes us to Wilcox County, Ala., where one in four people who want to work can't find that job.


Tanya Ott: It's pouring outside the Yellow Bluff city hall and councilwoman Joyce Williams debates whether she should buy sand bags to keep the building from flooding.

There's not much money for sandbags. With a handful of businesses and just a few hundred residents, the town of Yellow Bluff doesn't bring in a lot of tax money. And it's in the midst of an even bigger economic storm. Wilcox County's largest employer -- a lumber mill -- closed down recently, laying off hundreds of employees. Joyce Williams decides who gets emergency help with electric bills. She says requests are up more than 50 percent.

Joyce Williams: We used to help with people that was pretty much low income, the elderly, on disability. But now the people has lost their jobs, so I'm getting a lot of requests.

Requests from people like Adam Carter, how worked at the mill for 16 years.

Adam Carter: Back in the day you'd get laid off from a job, especially you work at a mill, you can go to another mill. You have 10, 15 years experience; they'd hire you on the spot.

But right now no one's hiring. The mill that closed was run by Weyerhaeuser, one of the world's largest timber companies. Its sales have plummeted, forcing the company to close plants in four states. Company spokeswoman Nancy Thompson says they do what they can to help laid-off employees, including 60 days of pay to soften the blow.

Nancy Thompson: You know, it's never an easy announcement, but we do try and partner with local agencies and community leaders and offer any assistance we can.

Jobs are tough to find. This is a rural county -- just 13,000 residents. 70 percent of them are African American. Because so many people are out of work, employers can keep wages low. Alicia Foster moved here from Atlanta.

Alicia Foster: I got a job as the chief clerk of probate making $7.96 and hour. Now I'm the chief clerk, so you can imagine what the other women in the office are making.

She says, not enough to support their families. Foster says women here do what they can to get by, even if that means taking money from men.

Foster: It's really a sad part of this situation.

Ott: When you say get money from men, you mean they just rely on men for money or do you mean they sell themselves for money?

Foster: The whole spectrum. I've spoken to women about it and I've said in effect, you're a prostitute and they say 'oh no, that's what I'm...' and I say 'what else is it?" And it happens very frequently.

It wasn't always like this. Wilcox County used to be one of the richest in Alabama. Its fertile soil made cotton king. But as people left farming, the county withered. A third of all adults are illiterate. Child poverty is rampant.

Trina Nicholson: We are really, in many ways, at third world standards.

And Trina Nicholson should know. She spent several years in West Africa with the Peace Corps before moving to Wilcox County to be near her husband's family. She now holds what has to be one of the toughest jobs in America. She's an economic developer for a small, rural, poor county in the middle of nowhere.

Nicholson: Companies do a lot of research now before they locate in a community and as hard as we try to sell Wilcox County as being the beautiful place that it is, we have some truths that we have to deal with.

Truths like there's no sewer system anywhere in the county. A company that wants to locate here would have to install its own, self-contained sewer system. And the nearest interstate is 45 miles away. Nicholson says Wilcox County's two-lane roads don't work for most large companies. So, Nicholson sells the only things she can: thousands of acres of pristine, undeveloped land and a deep, wide river that is the centerpiece of Yellow Bluff's plans for economic recovery.

Mayor Glen McCord spends countless hours in his pickup truck giving tours to state officials, company executives and journalists -- whoever he can convince to come out to these parts.

Glen McCord: We are on one of the old logging roads, which we hope to make our main thoroughfare going to the river.

McCord says he hates to see the timber mill close, but he's got bigger plans for Yellow Bluff.

McCord: What I'd like to do is, do a residential area on the river. Put a city park down there and then do some sort of retail.

He's talked to officials about building one of the world famous Robert Trent Jones golf courses here.

McCord: Over there the river has tremendous bluffs an those fairways would be simply spectacular to have in like that. We've got the land. We got to get some investors and we got to sell the idea.

Ever the salesman, he's already got his theme song picked out.

McCord: The look of love is on your face.

Ott: Now what does that one have to do with development?

McCord: Well, you know, you never know who you meet. I was taught at Auburn that you always need to have a little conversation piece you can pick up.

Ott: So you're going to sweet talk them with a little Burt Bacharach, is that what you're saying?

McCord: That's right, that's right. Yeah!

Not everybody's buying what Mayor McCord's selling. Resident Ralph Ervin says he's not opposed to tourism, but he wants sustainable jobs. Industry that local workers can rely on.

Ralph Ervin: You get tourists to come in and yeah, you get a few people that work at the service stations, you know, and people working at the restaurants, cooking and those kinds of things, you know, but it doesn't provide the quality of living for the majority of people.

One thing Ralph Ervin and Mayor McCord do agree on -- Wilcox County must find a way to replace the jobs lost when the lumber mill closed.

The little town of Yellow Bluff can point to initial successes. Just last week, Mayor McCord secured nearly a half-million dollars in sidewalk construction grants. That, he hopes, will lay the path to future development.

In Yellow Bluff, Ala., I'm Tanya Ott for Marketplace Money.

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