Town knocks ‘vulnerable' ranking

People in this old textile town don't need to read it in a magazine to know they are struggling.

Still, when Forbes decided to name Lancaster the most vulnerable town of its size in America, a new kind of frustration took hold.

“Most people were stunned,” said Sylvia Hudson of See Lancaster, a nonprofit agency that promotes local festivals and attractions.

The article cites Lancaster's 12 percent unemployment rate, twice the national average. It also notes that 20 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line, compared to a national average of 13 percent.

Education was the third major factor: Only 18.6 percent of Lancaster's work force has an associate's degree or higher, below the 25 percent average of other cities on the list.

Forbes says it assembled the rankings as a way to probe the unfolding economic crisis.

Beyond the initial anger, a larger debate seems to be simmering in this town 33 miles south of Charlotte. It pits residents who believe Lancaster is being unfairly singled out against those who wonder whether the distinction was deserved.

“I've been telling people for the past year, we've been on life support,” said 77-year-old Hazel Knight, owner of The Shoe Peddler in downtown Lancaster. “We just don't have jobs that we need. It's just a real bad deal.”

Others take an optimistic view, noting the relative health of Springs Memorial Hospital and USC Lancaster, as well as the growing presence of Founders Federal Credit Union.

“Maybe they should've said that 10 years ago when the textile business was closing,” said Stan Johnson, retired CEO of Kanawha Insurance Co. “Vulnerable to me says it's going to get worse. And I don't see that.”

Mayor Joe Shaw told The Lancaster News that several companies want to come to his town but that the national credit crunch has hampered progress.

“It's not good to read those kinds of things in a magazine,” he told the paper. “But we know what we need to do, and we're doing it. We're not sitting back.”

Regardless of where the town is headed, understanding how it got to this point starts and ends with one word: Springs.

In 1895, Leroy Springs and 83 stockholders founded the Lancaster Cotton Mill to capitalize on thriving upstate cotton production and a railroad line that had arrived in the 1880s.

By 1939, Lancaster was home to the world's largest print-cloth mill. Because steady work waited for them at Springs, people in Lancaster didn't have much reason to pursue college degrees or specialized job training. And the town didn't have much reason to recruit other employers.

Like other mills across the Carolinas, Springs gradually began to draw down production as jobs went overseas to Asia and South America, where cheap labor is plentiful.

Today, all that's left of the print-cloth mill is a few empty buildings.

Still, there are signs of hope. Earlier this month, Founders Federal Credit Union announced plans for a new corporate headquarters off S.C. 9 Bypass, with the investment estimated at $30 million.

Merchants in the downtown district are quick to point out that 10 new businesses have opened in the past year, bringing new life to empty storefronts. But the greatest need in Lancaster remains unmet: jobs to replace the ones that vanished when Springs closed.

Young adults who grew up in the area say they have little choice but to move away after high school. Neil Couch is one of the few who stayed. He landed a job at Founders.

His sister, Lindsay, moved to Boston to work in financial services. Many of Couch's friends also moved away.

“They don't want to sit around six or eight months waiting for somebody to call,” he said. “They go where they can find work.”