In downtown Chester, Main Street was mostly empty on Monday afternoon – and locals say that’s not unusual.
Some storefronts are bare, their lots vacant. Others appear occupied – “Yes, we’re here!” the sign in an ice cream shop reads – but their doors, at least on Monday, remained locked.
For this county seat of 32,000 people about 50 miles south of Charlotte, it’s been a long few years. Now, with Monday’s announcement that a Singapore-based tire company will bring 1,700 jobs to Chester County, residents say it’s time for things to start turning around.
Chester County, located two counties south of Mecklenburg, has long battled economic woes. Once home to a booming textile industry, the jobless rate surged above 20 percent in June 2009 and stayed above that until March 2010.
Now it stands at 6.9 percent, a number that residents and officials hope will soon start to fall.
“We’ve waited for this for a lifetime,” said Margaret Atkinson, 90, who has spent her whole life in Chester. She’s confident the new tire plant will not only bring jobs, but help the real estate business in a town dotted with houses whose owners haven’t been able to sell.
Residents hope the influx of employment opportunities will bring liveliness back to downtown. Cynthia Curtis, a development coordinator who works with the Chester Downtown Development Association, said efforts to revitalize the area have been ongoing but slow, bogged down by a tight budget and lack of motivation.
“On one level there’s been an inertia: This is the way things are, and we feel pretty impotent to change it,” she said. “This (announcement) gives the people of Chester the opportunity to think of not only the past, not only the present but also the future for themselves and their families.”
Curtis said while the jobs announcement was promising, she wasn’t sure workers would choose to live in Chester city limits, citing schools and shrinking resources as two main concerns.
But Nancy Anderson, an 81-year-old resident who worked with both real estate and development in the county for more than 30 years, said having 1,700 new workers, even just for the workday, will be a boon to economic activity.
“They’ll still work here, eat here, buy gas here,” she said. “There will be so many more dollars turned over in this community.”
Richard Smith, a county resident who works in insurance, says the good news has been a long time coming.
“In Chester County,” he said, “we won the lottery today.”