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Small Towns Decay as Cities Prosper : Sun Belt Promise Fading in Depressed Rural South

November 08, 1987|DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writer

ALBANY, Ga. — In the 1960s and '70s, this southwest Georgia city--like many other little cities and towns in the rural South--was riding the crest of the Sun Belt boom.

New businesses and industries were proliferating here, just as in Atlanta. Population and personal income marched steadily upward, and the future looked limitless.

"Albany could do no wrong," recalled James H. Gray, publisher of the local newspaper and president of the Albany Chamber of Commerce. "The exodus from the Frost Belt was on, and businesses and industries heading South were ours almost just for the asking."

In recent years, however, Albany's fortunes--like those across rural Dixie--have taken an alarming turn for the worse.

While Atlanta has continued to grow and prosper, Albany's economy has been decimated by a number of setbacks--the depression in agriculture, loss of manufacturing jobs to overseas competitors, federal aid cuts and deregulation of the transportation industry.

Last fall, in one of the most devastating blows, Albany lost more than 2,200 jobs when the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. plant was shut down. It had been not only the biggest employer in this community of 86,200, but the largest tire factory in North America.

Albany's unemployment rate is now more than 9%, almost twice the statewide average. Retail sales are stagnating and municipal revenues have flattened, hindering local government's efforts to help develop new jobs.

The situation ordinarily might be of little concern beyond the banks of the Flint River, the scenic stream that cuts through town, but what is happening in Albany is happening in other towns and communities as well. It is threatening to undo decades of economic growth and to turn dreams of Sun Belt riches into nightmares of stagnation and decline.

Increasingly, the story of the Sun Belt is becoming a tale of two Souths--one urban and one rural. On the one hand are the Atlantas, Charlottes, Birminghams, Raleighs, Nashvilles and Jacksons--cities that are expanding, prospering and offering thousands of new job opportunities. On the other hand are the farm communities and rural areas, which generally are on the skids and losing jobs, people and self-esteem.

"After two decades of reasonably solid growth, many rural communities are now finding themselves in serious decline in manufacturing and agriculture," according to a landmark report, "Shadows in the Sun Belt," compiled by MDC Inc., an employment-research firm in Chapel Hill, N.C.

"In short," the report said, "while we live in the Sun Belt, there is a dark cloud hanging over many of our rural neighbors."

Report Cites Statistics

The report, published last year, cites the following statistics:

- More than 95,000 textile jobs and 16,000 jobs in the clothing industry have been lost in the region since 1980, the overwhelming number of them in rural areas.

- Metropolitan areas are gaining jobs at nearly twice the rate of rural areas. In Georgia, for instance, 75% of all jobs created since 1981 have been in the Atlanta area, although it has only 40% of the state's population. Manufacturing employment has grown 17% in the Atlanta area over the last five years, but fallen 3.3% in the rest of the state.

- Farm income and assets have been plummeting. In North Carolina alone, 13,000 farms went out of business from 1980 to 1985, a 14% decline. Land and other agricultural assets in the state have fallen by at least $2 billion in value since 1983.

- Federal budget cuts since 1980 have cost state and local governments a cumulative $20 billion and had serious effects on rural economic-development efforts.

Beyond the statistics is an even bleaker picture of growing fear, anguish and misery in the rural South as farm notes are foreclosed, mills and factories shut down, merchants go out of business and people are forced onto the unemployment or welfare rolls.

Nothing Left but Dignity

"We have lots of citizens left with nothing but their dignity," said Janice Faulknor, director of the Regional Development Institute at East Carolina University.

This bifurcation of the Southern economy is causing problems for Sun Belt cities as well. The burden is beginning to spread to urban areas, as displaced workers arrive from the depressed countryside in search of jobs.

Population losses from many rural areas have grown worse in recent years. In Georgia, for example, 36 rural counties have lost population since 1980. In the 1970s only nine of the state's 159 counties lost population.

"For the most part, the people leaving the rural areas are heading toward the big cities," said Douglas Bachtel, a University of Georgia rural sociologist. "But many of them are undereducated and don't have many skills. Almost half of the people over 25 in Georgia don't have a high school education. That's why people in Atlanta and other metropolitan areas in the South need to be worried about our rural areas."

Could Repeat History

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