A tale of two Daltons: Many jobs lost but Georgia city eyes a rebound

A tale of two Daltons: Many jobs lost but Georgia city eyes a rebound

October 24th, 2012 by Joan Garrett McClane in News

Anthony Destefano Jr. and his son Anthony Destefano III walk past an overgrown auto repair shop near downtown Dalton, Ga.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

It's not good in Dalton. It's not bad in Dalton either. It just depends on who is talking. Jump off Interstate 75 and drive toward the heart of town, near the railroad tracks, and you will find a little downtown hustle.

There is an Avon shop, a place to get Boy Scout gear, lawyers' offices and banks. Oakwood Cafe is where much of the lunch crowd comes for fried chicken and corn muffins. The waitress takes orders on an iPhone.

Business is good, said owner Kasey Carpenter, who is 34 and following in the footsteps of his mother, who owned another restaurant in his home town. Sales have gone up 15 percent each year since the Oakwood Cafe opened. At noon on a Thursday, the only table open was in the back corner, beside the bathrooms.

"If this is the worst it can get, it's not that bad," Carpenter said, referring to the economy as he greeted customers at the checkout counter.

His success is surprising, because job numbers in this North Georgia town weave a different tale. Dalton has lost a bigger share of its jobs than any metropolitan area in America in the past 12 months. Nearly one out of four jobs has disappeared since 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

And the Georgia Department of Labor moved in on Monday to help. They hope thousands show up for a jobs fair at the convention center that will help people build resumes and polish interviewing skills, and compete for the few jobs that come open. The fair ends today.

While other parts of the country are rebounding from the Great Recession, Dalton is still losing jobs. Off Walnut Avenue where the carpet mill outlets call home, temporary employment agency signs read "JOBS." Car lots are empty. Businesses are shuttered.

"For lease" signs sit in front of strip malls.

Dalton boosters -- including Mayor David Pennington -- recognize the city is forever changed, but they don't want their town to become a poster child for economic depression.

For some, the outlook is bright.

Schools are growing and performing well. Downtown is being redeveloped. Property taxes have been cut five years in a row. Millions have been invested in recreational complexes.

For some.

Years ago this town was branded the Carpet Capital of the World. Hispanics bused in for manual labor jobs and created a housing boom in the area, starting in the 1980s.

Dalton, Ga., jobs

Dalton, Ga., jobs

Photo by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

But when the national housing decline took hold in the late 2000s, carpet manufacturers took a hit. On top of that, technology has eliminated the need for many of the former carpet mill jobs. Those left require a higher skill set.

"People aren't building new companies," said Brian Anderson, president and CEO of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce. "They aren't remodeling."

The tourism center in downtown Dalton, built inside an old freight depot, has glass cases that commemorate the heydays. Catherine Evans Whitener made the first chenille bedspread in the late 1890s, and later tufting became automated for rugs and carpet.

Carpeting giants like Shaw and Mohawk still provide 20,000 jobs and are a magnet for workers from other counties. Whitfield County is still the third-largest per capita employer in Georgia, said Anderson.

But since its peak in 2006, the Dalton area has shed 18,800 jobs and Dalton's 11.6 percent jobless rate in August remained the highest of any metro area in Georgia.

And times are changing.

The new tourism center has hardwood floors, not carpet.

In the "war room," as Convention and Visitors Bureau President Brett Huske calls it, they plan to make money off of visiting groups that come for the woods or the Civil War sites -- the Special Olympics, the Softball Players Association. In the last year, hotel taxes have gone up 60 percent to $1.2 million a year.

"Everyone is focused on identifying new opportunities," said Huske. "We have assets."

Carpetmakers will stay in Dalton, but Chamber officials are looking for more than carpet these days.

Chemical manufacturers. Carmakers.

Still, on the east side of the train tracks in Dalton, where the soot and the smoke blew when it was heavy with locomotives, optimism is harder to find.

Billy Bargo started his mobile home supply store in the late '80s on the east side of town when carpet was booming and rental units were packed to the gills. In those days, he said he was making $300,000 a year.

Vehicles fill the streets in downtown Dalton, Ga.

Vehicles fill the streets in downtown Dalton, Ga.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

And the money lasted into the mid-2000s. Then people slowly started leaving Dalton along with the jobs. He expects about $90,000 a year now between his store and his maintenance work on local rental complexes.

He was putting in water heaters for $225; now he offers installation for $125 to stay afloat. At least every other day, someone comes into his store and asks if he has any work fixing toilets or roofing to help them get by.

"It's been slow for the past five years," he said. "All the millions of jobs they say are happening out there, they aren't happening here."

He and his friend who just got back from lunch talk about Murray Avenue nearby and how dismal it looks without the shops and people.

So he takes his anger out on Facebook, posting rhetoric about the presidential election.

"People just don't have the money," he said. "Around here there isn't anything going on."

While many Hispanic men without U.S. residency have left the city to look for work, said Pennington, the city's overall Hispanic population hasn't shifted much. The schools still have the same numbers of Hispanics enrolled.

Other workers find themselves at the Dalton Career Center where they apply for unemployment and do job searches in a room full of computers.

Thirty-four-year-old Marcus Donoho has come here four times in the last year. He's been supporting his two children and wife with temp jobs at Universal Textiles and Mohawk. Eight weeks ago his wife was laid off from a bakery in Cleveland, Tenn.

A woman calls his name to the front and gives him two sheets of paper with job leads. One of them is for a full-time position at Shaw, entry level, but he seems discouraged.

Truck bays are empty at the Shaw/World Carpet building near downtown Dalton, Ga., late Monday morning.

Truck bays are empty at the Shaw/World Carpet...

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

There is no way he'll get it, he says. Hundreds of people will want that job. And even if he gets it, he said, it is cutthroat to keep it.

"It's like you are stuck."

Contact staff writer Joan Garrett at jgarrett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601. Follow her on Twitter at @JoanGarrettCTFP.