Will work for (lower) wages

The recent closings of Agfa and Ecusta, two of Transylvania County’s biggest employers, have hit local families hard.

In December, Transylvania’s unemployment rate stood at 13.3 percent — the highest in the state. A mere two years ago, the county boasted the third-lowest unemployment rate in North Carolina.

And while some former Ecusta and Agfa employees have found work, most have not, reports Paul Keating, who manages the Transylvania County office of the North Carolina Employment Security Commission. Although many of his clients remain positive about finding jobs, there are very few available — and almost none in manufacturing, he says.

“The vast majority of [ex-plant employees] have a great attitude, understand the situation, and are looking for work,” said Keating. “Most of the jobs are in the service sector. There are very few manufacturing jobs available anymore because of the slowdown of the economy and plant closures.”

And those jobs that are available pay from $9-$11 an hour (compared to the $17-$21 an hour that Keating estimates Agfa and Ecusta employees made). A look at the job postings at the Employment Security Commission confirms that assessment; companies as far away as Waynesville are advertising temporary factory jobs paying just over $8 an hour.

But some county residents maintain that increased tourism and the continuing influx of retirees are helping keep the county financially healthy despite the lost jobs.

“Tourism — not to say that’s the answer to our problems — has made a difference” since the plant closings, said Beth Carden, executive director of the Brevard/Transylvania Chamber of Commerce and the Transylvania Tourism Development Authority.

Carden, a Brevard native hired last May, said that judging by the income the Chamber derives from the city’s room tax, tourism rose 15 percent during the July 2001-June 2002 fiscal year, compared to the previous year. And at the half-way point of the current fiscal year, Carden said the fund was already at 71 percent of their projections for the entire year. This, she believes, reflects an ongoing interest among county residents in keeping an active tourism-based economy.

“There’s a lot of synergy and interest in trying to keep our economy healthy,” Carden reports. “Some communities, if they lose an industry, they stand around wringing their hands. We’re going to snap back from it and continue to grow.”

Brevard Mayor Jimmy Harris, whose office decor includes a framed sign advising, “Pray often, use words when necessary,” shares that optimism. Elected three years ago at age 37 (making him the youngest mayor in the city’s history), Harris was re-elected last year without opposition. He believes the area will attract new manufacturing jobs.

“It’s not going to be huge industry,” cautions Harris (who, besides being mayor, is also the owner/manager of Harris Ace Hardware). “What we want to attract is clean industry — technical jobs, computer-based jobs, jobs that can be in any part of the country but some CEO comes to Brevard and says, ‘I want to live here, so I’ll just move my company here.’”

Harris hasn’t entirely given up on heavy industry, either. “We want to have our cake and eat it too,” he declares, adding, “We want our Ecusta plant [back] and want other industry as well.”

Rolling with the punches

Still, even the most determined optimist can’t deny the impact of last summer’s plant closings. “Everyone was very sad,” said Carden. “These plants had people working there for three or four generations; it affected almost every family here.”

And with jobs in short supply, some displaced Agfa and Ecusta workers are following varied paths to new employment. Gene Zachary had worked for Agfa (formerly Dupont and Sterling) for nearly 26 years when he lost his job last June 28. Some of his co-workers found positions at the BMW plant in South Carolina (an hour-and-15-minute commute), as handymen (one started a business), or in construction. Others are taking classes at Blue Ridge Community College to gain additional skills. Zachary, however, decided to help his wife open a Christian bookstore, The Master’s Table, in a shopping center at the entrance to the Pisgah National Forest.

“Melanie has had a dream of owning a Christian bookstore for some time,” Zachary reveals. “We found out that the one in the county was going to close, so six months before I left Agfa, we started taking small-business classes though the Mountain Microenterprise Fund.” The Master’s Table opened last July, just days after Zachary’s Agfa job ended. And even though his former position paid well — according to census data, manufacturing wages in Transylvania County averaged $45,640 in the year 2000, making them the highest-paying jobs in the county — Zachary says he doesn’t miss it.

“We worked 12-hour shifts, and you miss half of your life,” he said. “I’ve felt better since June than I have in my whole life. I would sacrifice material things to not have to work shifts again. Ten years ago when we were still Dupont, they started cutting jobs and adding to your responsibilities. As the years went by, you had three times the amount of responsibility you had 10 years ago.”

Zachary concedes that he and his wife did think about leaving, but in the end, family considerations led them to stay put. “We sat down and thought about a lot of possibilities, but growing up here and [having] a son who’s 15 years old, we decided to do something on our own and try to stay in the county,” he explained. “I don’t know about my son. He will probably go to college, and I don’t think he’ll stay here because of the job situation.”

Meanwhile, housing prices in the county have increased steadily in recent decades, notes Bob Purcell, a broker and management associate at Sandra Purcell and Associates. Local property has appreciated by 3 percent to 6 percent per year over the last several years, says Purcell, who’s been involved in Brevard real estate since 1992. As a result, he reports, it’s become hard for young families to find affordable housing.

Mayor Harris, too, believes the loss of manufacturing jobs will have an impact on the county’s young adults.

“When I was growing up, you married your high-school sweetheart, got a house, worked at Olin [later Ecusta], and you were set for life. It’s not that way anymore,” he said. “We only see a small portion of [high-school students] return. There are no blue-collar jobs right now; we need to restore that.”

A changing economy

At this point, six months after the Ecusta closing, former plant workers are not all that picky about which job they’ll take, notes Keating.

“They’re looking for any good, stable job with benefits that will pay,” he said. “They’re past the point of being very, very selective.”

James Self, a 27-year Ecusta employee who now volunteers for PACE (the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union) Local 1971, says he’s all but given up on ever working at Ecusta again.

“If I can find a job that has insurance and a half-reasonable wage, I would take it,” he said. “But there are no jobs available. Some [businesses] even have signs up [reading] ‘No Help Wanted.’”

Self is one of an estimated 1,200 county residents now looking for work, says Keating. Another 250 are retraining to gain new job skills. Six-year Ecusta employee Larry Tritt enrolled in Sage Truck Driving School, but he hasn’t been able to find work in that field either.

“There ain’t nothing out there to be had,” he declares. “I took that truck-driving [course], but there’s no local people doing much hiring on that either. I could probably go long distance, but I don’t want to leave home for a month at a time.”

At the same time, however, the county’s abundant natural resources are providing jobs as national interest in the region increases. Jerry Stone, owner of Rockbrook Camp (one of 20 in the county), said his business employs 100 people during its 10-week summer session. Rockbrook, which charges $900 a week for girls ages 6-15, attracts about 600 campers each summer, he said.

The county, notes Stone, is “very much in demand for retirees and outdoor enthusiasts. Even though we’ve had recent economic hardship, in the face of that we’ve done amazingly well, and I think it’s because of those industries and populations.”

Downtown Brevard has also seen impressive growth since the early 1990s, when 13 buildings stood empty. Heart of Brevard, an organization of downtown businesses, was formed in 1990 to promote the town as a tourist destination. Since then, more than 100 businesses have opened downtown, creating 245 jobs, the group reports. Heart of Brevard also sponsors several festivals each year that bring tens of thousands of people downtown. These changes have bolstered what both Harris and Carden say are the area’s two growth sectors — tourism and retirees.

The plant closings haven’t hurt the local real-estate market either, notes Purcell. “A lot of people who worked at the plants don’t live in this county. Those who do live here have been here for many years. They’re anticipating a time when the local plant may offer new employment, or finding other things to do. They aren’t going anywhere.”

Facing an uncertain future

Zachary, however, is hedging his bet. Although he hopes both he and his wife can work full-time at the bookstore, he plans to train as an auto mechanic, just in case they need an outside income. Either way, he sees tourism looming large in Brevard’s future.

“We were surprised at the amount of tourist trade; November and December were very good months for us,” said Zachary. “Tourism is going to be the thing of the future if we don’t get any more industry.”

Keating, meanwhile, says he doesn’t expect manufacturing jobs to return to the region — which means many families of former plant employees will probably end up moving elsewhere.

“Initially no one wants to move, and a lot of [plant workers] hope Ecusta will open back up,” he said. “It doesn’t look like that will happen right away. I’m sure if it means relocating to feed their families, that’s what they’ll do.”

Even Harris concedes that because 45 percent of the county is public land, there isn’t room for another plant as large as Agfa or Ecusta. And retooling the Ecusta plant for use as anything other than a paper mill would probably be too expensive, he notes.

Nonetheless, Harris remains optimistic about the town’s prospects.

“Ecusta and Agfa closing created enough of a crater that we’re going to have to detour around it,” he admits. The plant closings, however, are “not going to deter us from keeping Brevard a successful and healthy community.”

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