N.C. jobless woes hit Gaston County hard

Shoppers at Courtney's, a discount grocer in this small Gaston County town, shuffled past a sign saying the store accepts food stamps. A woman counted a handful of bills, then gingerly traded them for a head of lettuce.

Business there is booming, owner Linda Broadway said Friday, as new customers including young mothers and seniors on fixed incomes drift in. They find her shop closer to home and cheaper than larger chains.

Like many places across the state, Gaston County's economy is getting squeezed as its jobless rate reaches new highs. On Friday, the N.C. Employment Security Commission said rates rose last month in 97 of 100 N.C. counties. The number of people looking for jobs statewide in July increased by more than 44,500, the biggest monthly gain in more than 25 years.

The slowing economy is stamping out struggling companies and driving people back to work to combat rising gas and food prices. Those problems are expected to continue into next year, and the unemployment rate is expected to keep rising.

The Charlotte area continues to add jobs, but that growth is slowing, overwhelmed by the area's steadily growing work force, said Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wachovia.

Locally, some of the biggest surges were in Lincoln County – where unemployment jumped to 8 percent last month from 6.6 percent in June – and in Iredell, which increased to 6.7 from 5.8 percent. The N.C. jobless rate was 6.8 percent last month, the highest since August 2003, and more than a percentage point above the national average.

With a heavy manufacturing base and a strong textile legacy, Gaston's economy has in recent years struggled more than most in the region. It has one of the highest unemployment rates in the Charlotte area, at 7.9 percent.

What's different now, though, is that officials and people in this county on Mecklenburg's western edge say the pain is more widespread than in years past, with the slumping economy and crumbling housing market adding to the burden.

The troubles aren't just in a certain part of town, or the result of a plant closing or big layoff. And it's not just the textile workers who are feeling pinched: It's commercial painters who can't find jobs, construction workers whose business is drying up, stay-at-home moms re-entering the workforce as gas and food costs soar.

Gaston's experience shows how economic troubles are catching up to the long-robust Charlotte area and what people are doing to stay afloat.

Gaston's troubles are fueled, in part, by the struggling manufacturing sector. In 2007, manufacturing jobs made up nearly 22 percent of the county's employment, almost double the state average, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce.

Those jobs have been disappearing. In December, for instance, the R.L. Stowe Mills yarn-spinning plant in Belmont closed, displacing nearly 140 employees. Swift Galey closed its Gastonia textile plant in March, displacing 250.

Jobs are disappearing in other fields, too.

Barbara Wayman, 54, lost her in-home care job after 30 years. Now, she's been out of work more than six months and can no longer afford car insurance and tags, she said Friday, sitting outside a Gastonia Food Lion.

She plans to borrow money from friends and go back to school for nursing and technical training.

“Things will be better for me,” Wayman said. “But I still feel for the people who can't get around.”

There have been some wins for the county. New developments are springing up in Belmont. Last year, National Gypsum Co.'s $125 million wallboard plant began production. A few months before that, Dole Food Co. Inc. began production at a $54 million vegetable- and salad-packing plant in Bessemer City.

Even the rising unemployment rate isn't as dire as it appears, said Donny Hicks, Gaston's Economic Development Commission director.

While there was “some alarm” when the rate first approached 8 percent in June, the number of jobs in the county is rising, he said. Unlike years past, when mill closings were mostly to blame, the latest rise in unemployment is more a result of the slowing economy, Hicks said.

Rising gas prices are forcing stay-at-home spouses to look for jobs, he said. In addition, teens have been looking for summer work, driving rates up in Gastonia and across the region.

About 6,000 people a month visit the Employment Security Commission office in Gaston for job help these days, up from 5,000 per month in the past, Manager Sharon Riggan said.

Just before lunchtime Friday, the office was full, with people banging away on computers and chatting about their experiences.

Misty Grigg, 26, got laid off Friday from an urgent care center in Charlotte. Her husband was laid off earlier this summer from his commercial painting job. Grigg has two young children and is pregnant with a third.

“You have to make it,” she said. “You have to take care of your kids.”

There's hope for the future. Hicks, the economic development director, said Gaston officials are investing in infrastructure and developing business parks to attract medical offices and higher-end manufacturing facilities. Vitner, the economist, said the unemployment rate will likely fall in the next few months and improve slowly through next year, though it will take a while before there's a major turnaround.

“We're just keeping our faith in the Lord,” said Lorraine Williams, 48, whose husband, Warren, had been laid off from his construction job. “We know he's going to bring us through.”