Progress tempered by Sept. 11; future up to us

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   Some say economic development in this "bedroom community" has been relegated to "Would you like to take it for a test drive?" and "Would you like fries with that?"
   There's nothing wrong with having meat and potatoes to fall back on. Or not having to worry about whether your vehicle is going to get you to work and back.
   While "Progress" this past year is not much to write home about, folks here are no strangers to circling the wagons to fend off outside attacks. They've been scrapping for generations, starting at Sycamore Shoals.
   No one is exactly sure why businesses in this area are failing. Martin Yoakley of Precipitator Services Group Inc., suggests it might be because parent companies choose to take their jobs to countries where the labor is $2 an hour, rather than $8 or $10.
   "They sure can't go North, because that's $30 an hour," Yoakley said.
   But this area must have something to offer. Those of us who have migrated to states where the pay is higher tend to keep coming back.
   Perhaps it's due to the clean waters of Watauga Lake, the sometimes breathtaking views of the mountains that cleanse our souls and remind us of a Higher Power. Maybe it's the abundant fishing and hunting, the grocery and drug stores where people know us by name and take time to make us feel special.
   Ken Riddle, a train aficionado who has been instrumental in getting Doe River Gorge up and running and who also has helped in the creation of a train museum in Elizabethton, said he would place his money on embracing tourism.
   "If I was Carter County, I would declare myself part of the High Country and promote tourism with every breath of my body. It is part of the High Country. It's surrounded on three sides. ... If you go to High Country real estate (in North Carolina), there's a lot of advertisement for properties back around Elk Mills, Watauga Lake and Roan Mountain. I would embrace that, because the industrial base, you can't depend on it," Riddle said.
   Whether the winning economic tactic for the community will be to turn a new eye toward tourism and capitalize on its small-town flavor, or to promote itself as a retirement community, or to shore up the economic base by importing new industry has not yet been determined. But residents can rest assured: If this town goes down, it goes down fighting.
   At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the nation's economic recession was in its sixth month. Business and consumer confidence, already showing signs of weakness, plummeted in the aftermath. Unemployment jumped to 7.4 million, with large job losses reported in the manufacturing sector.
   The Federal Reserve repeatedly cut short-term interest rates while Congress debated an economic stimulus package to trigger a recovery. In the Tri-Cities, several manufacturing facilities closed their doors. Others announced massive layoffs -- some just in time for Christmas.
   Frank Schaffer Publications, a source of hope for many jobless Carter Countians when it first located in the Watauga Industrial Park, packed its books and left town. The Alcoa plant is soon to follow suit, creating a $154,674 void in real and personal property taxes for the City of Elizabethton and $148,128 for the county.
   The Sept. 11 attacks shut down America's 15,000 airports and grounded crop-dusting planes nationwide, impacting not only major airports but penalizing small facilities such as Elizabethton Municipal Airport. No flights meant no air space rentals or sales of fuel, on which the airport depends.
   Air travel came to a standstill in October and November 2001, affecting local travel industry such as Uniglobe Empire Travel. Airline security improvements have now returned the industry to about 70 percent of its pre 9-11 level.
   Tennessee's $350 million budget shortfall last year prompted closure of 14 state parks. The remaining non-resort state parks, such as Roan Mountain, were ordered closed on Mondays and Tuesdays until further notice, saving the agency which administers funding more than $1 million. Tourists were the main casualties.
   On the positive side, low mortgage rates prompted a rash of lending activity at local banks. Incentives offered by the automotive industry, such as zero percent financing, boosted automobile sales. A new wave of patriotism following the terrorist attacks gave way to huge sales of "Americana" merchandise, much to the delight of local retailers.
   Congressionally mandated changes in the federal Clean Air Act ensured environmental companies such as PSG will keep a significant local labor force employed.
   Business has boomed for Star Building Systems since its location to Carter County, providing competitive wages for local welders who previously left home, and affordable facilities for companies on the homefront which were able to expand.
   North American Fibers Inc. leveled four additional buildings during cleanup after the February 2000 fire which decimated about 70 percent for the former rayon manufacturing facility. Now, it sits as prime commercial property ready for the taking, luring potential clients such as Wal-Mart. Bemberg Industrial Center, while not the most attractive site in town, also has made improvements and offered incentives to attract new businesses.
   Service-based industries -- from local funeral homes to the shop around the corner -- have become more reliant on the friendly faces of their employees and good old-fashioned customer service to carry them through these tough economic times.
   With funding cutbacks at every level, the economic future of the community is uncertain. How we weather the storm depends on community involvement, such as shopping at home and turning our talents into fledgling businesses to create a solid economic base. We can no longer depend on handouts from the state and federal government.
   Maybe it's time we heed the advice of our elders: "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade." And don't forget the lemonade stand.