published Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Dalton suffers worst job loss in America

JoAnn Norris, left, and Janet Canada discuss their time working in carpet factories and their recent unemployment as more jobs in the industry are mechanized. Norris worked for Shaw Floors for more than 34 years and Canada worked for Mohawk Flooring for 20 years.
JoAnn Norris, left, and Janet Canada discuss their time working in carpet factories and their recent unemployment as more jobs in the industry are mechanized. Norris worked for Shaw Floors for more than 34 years and Canada worked for Mohawk Flooring for 20 years.
Photo by Alyson Wright.

Dalton, Ga., lost more jobs than any other U.S. metropolitan area in the past year as the self-described Carpet Capital failed to match the recession rebound in most of the country.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said Wednesday that the Dalton area shed 4,600 jobs, or 6.9 percent of its total, from June 2011 to June 2012. Dalton is the worst of the 372 metro areas across the country in both overall and percent job loss, the bureau reports, and only 32 of those metros even saw job losses.

Since Dalton's most recent peak in July 2006, nearly one-quarter of its jobs have disappeared.

That's why Flor and Tomas Palomo packed up their five kids and moved from the Dalton area to Flor's Texas hometown last week. The two gave a combined total of 33 years to the flooring industry in Dalton, but took voluntary layoffs as they saw their hours dwindle.

"We've always thought about moving back [to Texas]. We never made the decision because the work was good," Flor Palomo said.

The Palomo's regularly worked more than 40 hours a week before the recession, but in the past year they've watched their hours slide as their company's orders dropped.

"I hope it goes well and picks up like it used to," Flor Palomo said. "But I just don't see it."

Eight years ago, times were great for Dalton. In April 2004, it had an unemployment rate of 3.3 percent, the lowest in the past decade.

In June of this year, the rate was 12.3 percent.

And many of those jobs aren't coming back. Dalton thrived on its carpet and floorcovering industry and manufacturers had more jobs than the city had workers. But the housing slump and a shift from soft floorcoverings to hardwood floors over the past five years plummeted the demand for carpet. New technologies also eliminated the need for many of those who worked in Dalton's carpet mills.

One problem is that Dalton concentrated too much on the carpet and floorcovering industries instead of broadening its base, said Elyse Cochran, executive director of economic development for the Dalton Chamber of Commerce and the Dalton/Whitfield Joint Development Authority.

"When all the carpet and floorcovering industries were going at full throttle, there really wasn't a need to go out and try to attract industries because you didn't have the workforce to support it," she said. "It is never, ever healthy for a community to have all of its eggs in one basket."

City planners are hopeful a 184-acre business park off Interstate 75 will attract diverse businesses. The site is ready for construction, and Cochran said she expects hundreds of new jobs to come to the area by the end of the year.

But hundreds of jobs are just a drop in the bucket when a city is hemorrhaging thousands.

"We're probably, realistically, looking at a 10-year plan before we really see most of those jobs replenished," Cochran said.

Ten years could be too long for Roger Brown to wait. He worked as a butcher at Carlock's Food King for three years before it closed in February. He's been on unemployment since and isn't feeling positive after five months spent looking for jobs.

"I'm looking for just anything, really," he said. "There's just nothing out there for me."

Dalton Mayor David Pennington doesn't expect much job growth for people like Brown until the state Legislature makes changes to make Georgia more business friendly. He said the state's high income tax cripples Dalton's ability to attract the new, small businesses needed to create more jobs and insulate the city from carpet industry crashes.

"We need more business around here," Pennington said.

But his outlook for Dalton isn't entirely gloomy. The city's nickel sales tax rate — about half the rate in nearby Chattanooga -- spurred 10 percent retail growth over the last year, he said, and the city still has fewer residents than it does jobs even after the massive job losses.

"When you employ a whole lot of people, you can lay off a whole lot of people," he said. "We've got a lot more people driving in here today to go to work than we've got driving out."

Despite retail growth, it's hard to move the city beyond its carpet roots. The floorcovering industry is all many Dalton citizens know.

And the new anchor tenant of the industrial park that Cochran hopes will play a role in the city's future is XL Brands, which manufactures flooring installation products.

Flooring will remain an important part of Dalton's economy for a long time and neither Pennington nor Cochran hope that to change. The challenge is moving beyond carpet to attract new, different industries, but after 70 years focusing almost entirely on flooring, it's difficult for the city to show the world it's open to something new.

Cochran hopes the days of diverse Dalton industry are coming soon.

"We have only been in the business for about six years," Cochran said. "You can't expect us to have success overnight."

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