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Ailing Factory Towns Face Tougher Recovery

By John Moreno Gonzales, Associated Press Writer Smaller industrial cities that were already reeling from decades of job losses have been among the hardest hit in the current economic crisis.

BURLINGTON, N.C. (AP) -- Tim Holt was among the men and women who wove fabric and prosperity here for generations, until the textile factories left town in a global manufacturing shift that the rest of the country hardly seemed to notice.

Fifty-one years old and pushing through his second federally funded job-training program in six years, he names the departed companies like a list of suspects. Gold Toe, which introduced its durable socks during the Great Depression, found cheaper labor in Mexico. Culp Weaving, an upholstery giant that may have covered your parents' sofa, left for China. And the town's namesake, Burlington Industries, abandoned its sprawling compound after a 2001 bankruptcy, the remnants bought by the conglomerate International Textile Group but still vacant.

What most frustrates Holt and others in ailing industrial towns across the country is that their communities began their tailspin long before sub-prime mortgages failed and stocks plunged. And compared with places where the housing crisis has done most of the damage, their prospects for rebounding are dim.

According to the Associated Press Economic Stress Index, an exclusive county-by-county measurement of foreclosures, bankruptcies and unemployment that shows the relative impact of the recession, smaller industrial cities that were already reeling from decades of job losses have been among the hardest hit in the current economic crisis.

"We worked 40 or 50 years in textiles. Then, that was gone," said Holt, whose retraining at a community college is designed to help workers displaced by the North American Free Trade Agreement. "People talk about a five-year plan, a 10-year plan. You could do that then. Now it's a moment-to-moment plan."

The AP's analysis, which assigns each county a score from 1 to 100 with higher numbers reflecting the greatest stress from the recession, shows some of the heaviest impact in hardscrabble communities where the factories went quiet years ago.

Cities like Woonsocket, R.I., whose aging population has watched so many plants depart that surrounding Providence County carries one of the nation's highest unemployment rates despite being home to universities and state government.

Towns like Elkhart, Ind., on the Michigan line, where recreational vehicle makers have laid off hundreds. Elkhart County forms the western end of a strip of counties stretching into Ohio that includes four of the eight worst Stress Index scores, and in each place, manufacturing makes up close to half the workforce.

Places like Burlington, a city of 50,000 two hours northeast of Charlotte, where the tough times are measured not only by the loss of a steady paycheck, but by the strain it places on veteran workers trying to reinvent a career later in life.

"It really hurts your heart when you have a grown man in your office who has worked all his life, crying," said Tracy McKinney, an intake specialist at the Alamance County Department of Social Services who processes applications for public assistance. "People try to keep up appearances for as long as they can, until there's no options left."

Holt's classmate, Charles Andress, 61, is trying to avoid McKinney's desk as he balances the loss of a job he held for 25 years and obligations that he never expected to have as a grandfather. Andress was laid off from Culp Weaving in May 2007. His wife Brenda, 39, a former line supervisor at Gold Toe, lasted a year and half longer before her job was eliminated.

Another blow came when the couple took guardianship of Brenda's 2-year old grandson and 1-year-old granddaughter. They used $50,000 of their 401(k) funds, two-thirds of what they had left after Wall Street's plunge, to meet court requirements of building the children separate rooms. Their unemployment benefits expire next month, and they say they will never accept welfare.

"Once you get on that, you're dependent," Brenda Andress said in the living room of a home they can no longer afford.

A March sampling of laid-off factory workers in the area found 44 percent had less than a high school diploma, 47 percent needed health care benefits and 33 percent needed mortgage or rental assistance. Last year, the county social services rolls -- from foster care to Medicaid -- increased four percent. This year, they are projected to increase another 13 percent.

"It's grown beyond our doors," said Linda Allison, director of the Alamance County Department of Social Services, who helped form response teams to confront factory closures.

There are faint signs of a rebound. LabCorp, a medical sample testing company, has become the largest employer in town with 3,400 workers, and classes at Alamance Community College are crowded with students training for a career there.

Honda intends to build a new breed of light commercial jets in Burlington and hire 600 employees. It announced in April, however, that "global aerospace industry business challenges" will stall deliveries until the fourth quarter of 2011.

Burlington officials have sought $12 million in federal stimulus money to pay for 50 job-creating infrastructure projects. And the town is located just outside the Research Triangle region, home to the research jobs found at the University of North Carolina, Duke University, North Carolina State University and private firms.

Allison's efforts funnel laid-off workers directly into retraining and counseling, and are designed to prepare them for careers at the growing industries. Textiles offered nearly three times as many jobs, but the new work can pay twice as well.

David Carter, assistant pastor of the Baptist Temple of Alamance County, counsels people transitioning from blue-collar work to a diversified economy. His father founded the church in the recession year of 1975, when Burlington saw unemployment nearing 20 percent.

Carter counsels parishioners who may not be completely out of a job, he said, but take two or three to pay their bills. Family time is sacrificed.

"The old mill houses here, they were all built with a front porch. You saw your mom greet your dad home from work on that porch. You learned on that porch," Carter said. "You don't see a lot of porches like that anymore."

As he nears the end of his job training, Holt is concerned that he will have to swallow some pride. A friend who graduated from the same course in programmable electronic controllers -- the mechanical brains of everything from factory machinery to traffic lights -- became a janitor at an interstate truck stop. It was all the Triangle had for a former mill worker in his 50s.

On the road to Carter's church, which he has attended for years, Holt passes the gleaming Honda plant that will play a role in Burlington's future.

"Every laid off worker in North Carolina is going to apply there, me included," Holt said.

"It can be done, but you're going to have to dig deep within yourself to do it. You felt like you were part of something, a vital part, now all of a sudden you're back at square one."