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Christina Alvarez was warned before she came to Rutherford County from Texas three months ago.
Her mother, who moved to Rutherfordton after a foreclosure forced her from her Rowan County home, told her times were tough.
But Alvarez, a 34-year-old mother of six from Dallas, was looking for opportunity and decided to join her mother in Rutherfordton.
“I thought she was joking,” Alvarez laughed, as she sat in the waiting room of the Rutherford County Department of Social Services offices.
Now, Alvarez and her six children are living together in an RV while she scrapes by on $379 a month that she earns through the county’s Work First program.
A felony conviction in Texas has made it nearly impossible for her to find employment in a local job market that has been thinned by outsourcing since the mid-1990s.
“It’s not easy over here,” Alvarez said. “If I’d have known, I’d have stayed in Texas.”
Today, even without a criminal background, job-hunting in Rutherford County can be a daunting task.
The county’s unemployment rate rose to 14.5 percent in June – the third highest in North Carolina for the second consecutive month, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce’s monthly report released July 27.
That follows the release of a May report by the Appalachian Regional Commission [PDF] ranking Rutherford County in the worst 10 percent of the nation’s economically distressed counties for the 2013 fiscal year.
The downturn is troubling considering that Rutherford County has been part of a regional movement toward a booming technology industry for the last two years, so much so that in 2011 the N.C. Department of Commerce touted Western North Carolina as a national data center hub.
Many, including Gov. Beverly Perdue and U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry (NC-10), hailed Forest City’s $450 million Facebook Data Center as a game changer for the area, but residents like Alvarez have been left wondering when the wealth will spread.
Textiles’ exodus leaves job hole
It’s a familiar story across many economically stressed communities in WNC. The textile industry, at one time the largest sector of employment in the county, is now a shadow of its former self.
Sandra Miller Camp, manager of the Rutherford County JobLink Career Center, has worked with state agencies helping jobseekers in Rutherford County since 1991.
Camp said outsourcing and cheap labor overseas began to draw jobs elsewhere in the mid-‘90s.
“It started with the cut-and-sew operations, then it kind of went to the textile firms,” she said.
Camp’s office runs the local Trade Adjustment Assistance program, which helps workers displaced due to increased imports or production shifts out of the country.
She said most of the people who come to her office still take part in the program.
“It’s been a very big program for us because we’ve had so many layoffs,” Camp said.
Matt Blackwell, executive director of Rutherford County Economic Development Commission, said about 2,000 textile jobs were lost over a period of 10 to 12 years.
“The effect of losing the textiles was much larger than just losing those textile jobs,” he said.
The loss of textile jobs resulted in a domino effect, knocking out support jobs and even retail jobs supported by textile workers and plants, which Blackwell said resulted in an economic slowdown.
The dwindling industry left Rutherford County especially susceptible to the recession of 2007.
From January 2008 to January 2009, Rutherford’s unemployment rate leapt from 6.5 to 15.4 percent, according to state figures.
The rate peaked in January 2010 at 19.1 percent – just 0.2 percentage points from having the highest unemployment rate in the state.
The loss of the textile industry essentially left Rutherford County’s economy with a gaping hole, and it wasn’t immediately clear who would fill it.
Tech moves in, offers some hope
When social networking giant Facebook announced Rutherford County as the site for its newest data center in 2010, it seemed as if technology would be Rutherford’s remedy.
And in some ways, it has been.
The iconic “f” that sits outside of Building 1 at Facebook’s Forest City Data Center is a metaphor for the role Facebook has played in the community – the sculpture is actually made of building materials from a textile mill that once occupied the site, Lead Data Center Technician Keven McCammon said.
The former industry has contributed to Facebook in more substantial ways, too.
“Because of the textiles leaving there was an excess of power,” McCammon said.
This preexisting electrical infrastructure, as well as Rutherford County’s fiber optic connectivity, was what drew Facebook to the area, McCammon said.
Since construction began, the site has been a significant source of employment for county residents.
Between 280 and 500 workers have been continuously employed in the center’s construction since November 2010, and more than 50 percent of those workers were hired from within a 50-mile radius, McCammon said.
“The goal is always to go local first within the county,” he said. “If we can’t meet the particular requirements within the county, we go regional.”
Facebook’s two buildings at the site have the capacity to employ around 50 workers each in the long term, McCammon said. He added that Facebook pays above the county’s median salary.
Although only one building is currently operational, McCammon said more than 60 percent of its workers have been hired locally.
McCammon himself is an example – he is the former chairman of Rutherford’s Economic Development Commission and co-owner of a business in Rutherfordton.
But many Rutherford residents aren’t as qualified as McCammon.
Camp, the manager of the Rutherford County JobLink Career Center, said a majority of unemployed workers that come through her office are from manufacturing, not technology, backgrounds.
“We haven’t seen that many people who would qualify for the jobs with Facebook,” she said.
Some may be lucky enough to get into the new Data Center Institute at nearby Isothermal Community College, which was started in conjunction with Facebook.
The 12-day workshop, which focuses on the technical knowledge of an entry-level data center employee, had four graduates start work at Facebook’s data center in June, McCammon said.
The program was started not just for Facebook, but because of the other data centers in the region as well, he said.
Facebook not the only key
However, Blackwell and Camp are both hesitant to tag technology as the sole savior of Rutherford County.
“We are still a manufacturing community and manufacturing jobs will be important in reestablishing a solid local economy,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell was referring to jobs like the 305 that Valley Fine Foods announced it would create when it opens its new manufacturing operation in Forest City or the approximately 250 positions that Horsehead Corp. announced it will create at the zinc and diversified metals production center that it’s constructing in Rutherford County.
Camp echoed Blackwell’s hopes for more manufacturing jobs, but said she was wary about the county relying totally on one industry as it did with textile manufacturing.
“I think diversity is the key,” she said.
At this point, how – and when – Rutherford County’s job situation will rebound is uncertain. In some part, it depends on whom you ask.
Researchers at the Appalachian Regional Commission give a much different picture of Rutherford County. They looked at the county’s poverty rate, unemployment rate and per capita market income to rank the county as one of the most distressed in the Appalachian region.
Right now, Blackwell, the economic development chair for the county, said the commission’s main priority is attracting employers.
The county hopes to have a target market study completed by spring of next year to identify what types of employers it should target, he said.
As for the ARC rating, Blackwell said the designation would make Rutherford eligible for more grant money.
Camp said she thought the trying times have brought Rutherford County’s economic development entities into a “more cohesive force” to tackle future problems.
“I’m sure there will be ups and downs with the economy, but I think we’re more prepared to face them,” she said.
But with six other mouths to feed and no job, Alvarez was a little less optimistic about the future.
“I’ll just keep my fingers crossed,” she said. “That’s all I can do.”