Wanted: More & better JOBS

By Frank Robinson

  Across the country, communities are competing with one another to offer the most lucrative incentives to lure businesses and industries, using tax breaks to attract top jobs. However, it is time to face the facts and take a profound look at our community and where we stand and where we are headed.
  Twenty years ago Carter County was home to several reputable industries, among them Jarl, Snap-on Tools, Texas Instruments, Iodent, Levi Strauss, Mapes Piano String Co., and American Air Filter, as well as Watauga Industries. With the exception of Snap-on Tools and Mapes, all of these industries have either closed their doors or relocated elsewhere, including the rayon plants, East Tennessee Undergarment, Great Lakes Research Corporation, and Inland Container. Texas Instruments was bought by Siemens, and continues to operate in West Carter County. However, there have been deep cuts in its work force. Inland Container moved from its building on West Elk Avenue and operates out of a much smaller facility -- the Iodent facility -- leaving a vacant building on West Elk Avenue, which is now for sale.
  Mapes and Snap-on Tools have become our major industries and contribute immensely to the community.
  Other major businesses, which have closed their doors in the past three years, include Paty Lumber Co., General Shale and Cendant. In addition, Moody Aviation will be leaving Elizabethton in May 2005, and Winn-Dixie announced in May of this year it will be closing its two Elizabethton stores within the year. The Betsy Town store is already in the process of closing, and the store in the West Town Plaza will soon follow.
  Also, last year East Tennessee Railway ceased its operation to Elizabethton and plans to remove the railroad tracks within the next year. In the past, even though it has been several years ago, the telephone company operated an office in the city, which employed a number of persons. Although we do have a gas provider in the city (Blossman), we do not have a natural gas office, and the cable company doesn't even have an office here except to receive payments.
  Frank Shaffer Publications closed in 2001, leaving 55 persons jobless. The 200,000 square-foot building remains empty.
  Also vacant is the Alcoa (Jarl) building, which closed in 2002, leaving 240 persons without jobs.
  Cendant, which worked out of the Great Lakes building, employed 282 full-time and part-time persons.
  Earlier (in the late 1990s), North American Corporation and East Tennessee Undergarment, two main-stays of the textile and clothing industry, closed their doors. NAC moved what was left of its works to the Tri-City Industrial Park; the owner, Charles Green, citing a lack of cooperation with local officials and the offer of a better deal from Sullivan County.
  The job losses are real. When you lose jobs, you lose houses, you lose stores, you lose a culture and a way of life, as well as a substantial tax base. We, as citizens, are shouldering the tax burden that industries once carried. Like too many towns, in the past when we have lost manufacturing jobs, we have licked our wounds and walked away.
  A First Tennessee Development District report has revealed some interesting facts about Carter County -- facts that really need to be pondered by our local officials.
  * There were 7,958 service-related jobs in Carter County in 2003 (latest figures) compared to 1,392 manufacturing jobs.
  * There were 702 job opportunities through new plants and 625 job opportunities through plant expansion in Carter County during 2003 compared to 3,820 job opportunities in Greene County through new plants and 5,313 job opportunities in Greene County through plant expansions during the same period.
  * Only 65 percent of Carter County's high school graduates in 2003 continued their education.
  * The 2003 income per capita in Carter County was $20,233, with 9,309 persons classified as impoverished.
  In the past, the Elizabethton community relied heavily on manufacturing, which has undergone a significant structural change over the past two decades, causing a significant erosion of the job base in cities like Elizabethton. In the past decade, we have probably lost from 4,000 to 5,000 industrial jobs, which contrasts to about 500 manufacturing jobs added with the expansion at Snap-on Tools and the location of Star Industries, A.Y. McDonald, and Siemen/Westinghouse plants to Elizabethton.
  Even though we have gained some jobs, mostly in the service sector, we as a community need to stay vigilant to make sure we don't lose ground and are more aggressive in turning the job situation around. It's a critical task because jobs are an important component of sustaining vibrant communities and supporting our churches and schools.
  Although a shift from manufacturing to service-related jobs looks natural, even inevitable, it is far tougher and grittier in the communities struggling to make the transition. Indeed, just as factories pulled more workers from the farm a century ago, the service sector is grabbing a larger share of the economy today.
  At the same time that Elizabethton has been losing its industrial base, its spending on economic development has failed to grow. And, the jobs continue to go. We as a community are spending about $150,000 of taxpayer money a year trying to recruit jobs. The city of Elizabethton, Carter County, and the Elizabethton Electric System each appropriate $35,000 yearly to economic development, with the remainder of the funds coming from donations from other businesses and enterprises.
  We must be a town that fosters entrepreneurs. We must not fear change, but embrace change. Your vote for liquor-by-the-drink may be a starting place.
  Our greatest assets as a community must be an educated and trained work force, quality of life and a pro-business climate.
  High unemployment rates, significant decreases in the labor force, increased poverty, low spending on education, high spending on debt service, and shifts to lower-paying jobs don't bide well in 2004. It's difficult to envision a bright economic future for the one out of three students in our county who don't go on to college.
  The job market is changing with a mix of new jobs being created and old jobs being replaced. More and more businesses are relying on greater work force efficiency as a result of new technology.
  As the job market changes, we must change the way we recruit new jobs. Industrial recruitment is a common tool used for economic development in small towns such as ours. However, this tool can be costly and ineffective, if we don't have the right people in place to make it happen.
  Without Johnson City, we'd be in real trouble as many of our residents travel to Johnson City as well as Kingsport and Bristol to work at area hospitals, the VA and ETSU, where there are good-paying jobs.
  Elizabethton provides all the advantages of a small, friendly community while offering the convenience of being close to shopping. Among other things we have are affordable housing, good schools, recreational opportunities, and, in my opinion, Elizabethton/Carter County is the greatest place to live and raise a family.
  Another factor working in our favor is that we have great representation in Washington with friends, Senators Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander and Rep. Bill Jenkins.
  We just need jobs that will pay families a livable wage, and it is past time we got off our rears and did something about it.