Factory closing slams Ga. town

TRENTON, Ga. -- When the yarn factory on Main Street announced this month that it was closing, it was a body blow to this close-knit community between two mountains near the Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama borders.

It's not merely that Shaw Industries Group Inc.'s Plant 76 is the economic lifeblood of Trenton and Dade County, its 440 good-paying jobs make it the county's largest private employer. The factory has been a constant here for some 40 years, changing hands from time to time but always providing economic certainty: It was where people went to work after high school, and the only place many ever worked.

Now the Wall Street meltdown is being felt literally on Main Street. The plant, which produces spun yarn for use in carpet, is closing in November in reaction to the housing slowdown and changing consumer tastes.

As the nation's economy worsens, workers are being laid off by thousands.

Georgia has been especially hard-hit. From August to September, this state shed 22,300 jobs, more than any other state except Michigan. Most of Georgia's job losses came in the carpet-producing region of north Georgia, says state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond.

Plant closings in small towns have a greater impact than in urban settings and can alter the demographic fabric of a community, says Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. "Normally, the first people to leave are the young adults because they're the least vested," he says. "For others, leaving is a more complicated thing."

Fear and tension are palpable in this city of 2,370 about 25 miles southwest of Chattanooga, Tenn. Workers line up daily at the library to create résumés and cover letters. They're deluging local businesses with job applications. Churches already are getting more requests for aid.

"It will be devastating," says Ann Brown, a 40-year resident and self-described busybody who serves on several civic boards. "With the holidays coming and property taxes due Dec. 20, it's going to be tough. People are concerned about how they're going to find a job."

Lives turned upside down

Phyllis Powell, 51, started at the plant on Main Street when she was 18. It's the only place she's ever worked. "I don't know what I'm going to do," she says. "I had planned to work there until I was 55, saving for my retirement and for my son's college. Now I guess I'll be one of 440 people looking for a job."

The housing downturn — and consumers' preference for hardwood and other floor coverings instead of carpet — forced the closing of Plant 76, according to Hal Long, Shaw's executive vice president of operations. Long says that Shaw, the world's largest carpet producer with a workforce of 29,000, is giving pay and full benefits to the Plant 76 workers until Dec. 9 and will offer some of them jobs in other facilities as openings become available.

O.L. Lynch, 63, says the factory closing — coming against the backdrop of Congress' $700 billion bailout of Wall Street — is sparking bitterness. "People out there are pretty angry," says Lynch, a machinist who went to work there after high school. "They feel betrayed. They feel lied to by their government and stolen from by Wall Street."

Limited resources

Gayla Brewer, manager of the public library branch downtown, sees Shaw workers every day, reinventing themselves as they learn to use computers. "There's a little bit of panic," she says. "They're desperate for jobs."

Trenton's remote location in the far northwest corner of Georgia, between Lookout Mountain and Sand Mountain, makes it seem isolated from the rest of the state. Some locals worry about whether the economic safety net is sufficient. "Being as small as we are, our resources are very limited," says Rebecca Page, who runs a state program that helps families facing economic hardship.

Half of the Shaw plant's employees live in Dade County, and the rest drive in every day from Alabama and Tennessee, says Allan Ward, president of the Dade County Chamber of Commerce. On payday, the out-of-state workers buy gas, groceries and other items in town. "We know that when you pull a payroll this size, your restaurants, your grocery stores, they're all going to lose money," Ward says.

Trenton's strategy for weathering the plant closing centers around a Volkswagen automobile manufacturing plant coming to the Chattanooga area in 2011.

City officials will market the Shaw Industries site and other locations in an effort to lure automobile suppliers. "We're on two interstates and a railroad, and we're two hours from every important city in the region, Nashville, Knoxville, Birmingham and Atlanta," Ward says.

Demographer Johnson says small towns that lose their main employer often fade into obscurity, but he believes Trenton will endure: "Their saving grace is their proximity to the Chattanooga metro area. A lot of these people are certainly going to find jobs there."