Apparel Plant Closing Rocks Southern Town

In an instant, at the end of the workday Friday afternoon, nearly a third of this textile town was unemployed.

The VF clothing factory in Andrews had gone out of business. Of the 1,500 people who live in this town at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains, about 500 worked at the plant.

Andrews is just one victim in this winter of job loss. On the same day VF shut down its factory, the Ford Motor Company announced it was eliminating 35,000 jobs throughout the company.

But towns like Andrews tend the feel the impact the most.

Mitch Rhinehardt, the town's newly elected mayor, says his little city is in big trouble.

"You can just imagine the problem," he says. "Five hundred people all going to the unemployment office at the same time. This town is out of work, there's no doubt."

There's no doubt on Main Street, where shops began to close months ago when the clothing company first announced it was leaving.

More than half the storefronts are nothing but empty windows. The power company has moved its offices. A local insurance company is gone. So are at least three restaurants.

Richard Moore's clothing store is one of the few businesses left, and even he is leaving.

"By the end of the month, I'll close it out," he explains.

When ABCNEWS stopped by, business in his store was so slow, he didn't have enough change to return to his one customer of the day.

Moving South

The VF Corporation, which owns the plant and describes itself as the world's largest apparel company, says competition has forced the company to move jobs overseas. The company holds more than 25 percent of the U.S. jeans market and makes such brands as Lee, Wrangler and Rustler, according to its corporate Web site.

Already, VF has moved 20,000 jobs to factories in Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras, where labor is cheaper. Susan Williams, a VF vice-president, explains that closing the Andrews plant was a "very difficult decision."

"But it was necessary," Williams says, "for the long term success of the company."

In Andrews, a place the company called home for 50 years, residents still feel betrayed.

Fifty years ago, the hardworking people of this mountain community were so desperate to attract the clothing company, they raised the money to buy land the plant sits on. For the townspeople, it was an exchange of land for jobs.

Today, residents feel the company has left the community high and dry. "When it came to the almighty dollar," says Cindy Holland, a sewing machine instructor, "the people of this community didn't matter."

Union vice president Rhonda Cagle continues the thought. "And that's what hurts, they devastated this community for money."

The plant's closure is especially hard on the Davis family. Both Chuck and Cindy Davis worked at the plant. They have four children, one of them on the way to college. Their two-income family, is down to no income coming in anytime soon.

"And in an area that there's not a lot of employment to go to," says Chuck Davis, "it makes it more fearful."

Location, Location, Location

Andrews has a location problem. Whatever job opportunities might be out there are far away. Andrews is at least two hours away from the nearest metropolitan area.

"We can't drive two hours to Atlanta," says Kelly Morgan, a former plant employee. "We can't drive two hours to Knoxville, two hours to Chattanooga, and if we want employment, that's where we have to go."

Morgan and many other residents have decided to take advantage of a federal provision that allows them to go to school, and still collect unemployment while in classes. It's an unemployment extension, and plant employees qualify for the extension because their jobs were moved overseas.

But as many people here will tell you, most VF workers haven't had a class since the 1970s, and in Andrews, there's little you can do with a college degree.

For the employees who lost their jobs, which is a great deal of the town, there are only two options: either accept the long commutes to jobs far away, or pack up and leave the only place they've ever called home.