Dalton still reeling as U.S. economy bottoms out

Dalton still reeling as U.S. economy bottoms out

April 10th, 2009 by Beverly Carroll in Georgia

In Dade County, it doesn't seem like the economy may have hit bottom in Georgia and soon will begin to turn around.

"Our county is hurting. People are having a hard time (paying) rent and utilities," said Lionel Austin, president of Dade County Chamber of Commerce. "We are hoping it's at the bottom. The chamber's been working every which way we can to draw new businesses, but there's just not many businesses expanding currently."

The percentage of Georgia residents applying for unemployment last month was up by triple digits in many counties, as compared to the same month last year.

Dade County was the exception, showing a drop in new unemployment claims, according to the Georgia Department of Labor's monthly report. But the numbers do not tell the whole story, Mr. Austin said.

Many North Georgia counties are still reeling from factory closings in recent months. Two carpet related plant shutdowns idled 676 workers in Dade and Catoosa counties alone.

Between August 2007 and August 2008, there were 2,700 textile jobs lost, accounting for 7.2 percent of jobs statewide in the industry, excluding the closings at Shaw in Dade and Mohawk in Fort Oglethorpe.

Fort Oglethorpe Mayor Ronnie Cobb was surprised by the large increase in Catoosa County's unemployment claims, which state records show were up more than 200 percent for March compared to 2008.

Still, the mayor said he is cautiously optimistic, a feeling shared by 52 percent of respondents who said they believed the economy has stabilized, according to a national poll released Wednesday. The Ipsos poll showed the first significant boost in consumer confidence since September, when the global financial crisis erupted.

"This is just like burning off a forest," Mr. Cobb said. "We burned the underbrush and it's starting to come back stronger. I don't know that I could say we are going to see a turn now, or a couple of months from now, but I think it's on the way up."

Economic triggers are cocked and ready to signal the start of better times, said Brian Anderson, president and CEO of the Dalton Chamber of Commerce. The Whitfield County area, once carpet capital of the world, has been hit hard, a result of the domino effect with the collapse in the housing market.

The Whitfield metro area, which includes Murray County, and metro Rome, are two of the hardest hit areas in Georgia, state records show. The area's jobless rate has hovered around 11 to 12 percent, the state's highest, and the highest rate for Dalton since the state started tracking job rates over the past two decades.

"Predicting the bottom is still difficult," Mr. Anderson said. "There is some optimism that we should see bottom this year, possibly in the late third quarter or maybe the fourth quarter. And it will probably be a pretty slow turn around."

State Labor Commissioner Michael L. Thurmond said the job market will probably be the last segment to register an upswing.

"Even after recessions end, job creation generally lags," Mr. Thurmond said. "It takes months to recoup job losses."

Upward movement in housing market will lead to the return of the carpet industry, he said.

"I believe carpet will come back primarily because housing will jump back," he said. "But what impresses me about North Georgia is the people. They are experienced and hard working. That, and the area's colleges and two-year technical schools, those are the things that will draw industry."