Neighbors helping neighbors

Damage assessment - on present and future effects that a faltering economy and plant closings are and will have on Barnwell County - was the purpose of a meeting between county officials, human services personnel and business and civic leaders recently.

The Feb. 2 meeting was coordinated by Barnwell County United Way - whose member agencies and others that it interacts with - are starting to see the human effects of tough economic times in the county.

"This is an open meeting to discuss the changes that our county is going through," said Willis Jolly, the chairman of the Barnwell County United Way board of directors.

The meeting was moderated by Barnwell County United Way Director Fred Geier and Tim Ervolina, the president of the United Way Association of South Carolina.

The catalyst for the meeting was recent announcements that the Milliken and Hanesbrands plants in the county would be closing by mid-year. These closings will leave about 435 people without jobs.

However, the main purpose of the meeting was to open communications within the community and determine how public agencies, county offices, churches and civic groups can come together and help each other with existing resources.

"I hope tonight to hear from you on how we can help one another," Ervolina said. "We invited you from all these diverse backgrounds because you have gifts."
Job layoffs have other effects beside economics - human ones.

"Human services is having the same kind of problems that manufacturing is but from a different direction," Geier said.

Within bad economies, incidents of marital problems, domestic violence and alcoholism tend to increase, which puts a strain on human service agencies that themselves are already experiencing staff and budget reductions and work hour furloughs, he said.

"I'm not trying to paint a picture of doom and gloom," Geier said.

The Axis 1 Center of Barnwell runs a food pantry. Already the counseling agency has had to reduce its allotments to people from five-day food supplies to three days worth, said Cheryl Long, the Axis 1 director.

"We are not just talking about indigent people but people caught up in this," she said.

Barnwell Presbyterian Church operates a once-a-week soup kitchen. The kitchen has seen its clients grow from 50 and 70 people a week to nearly 100, said its pastor, the Rev. David Turner.

However, other churches are helping out with the soup kitchen, which will eventually be run out of a separate facility being renovated now, he said.

"To do that, I need a DHEC-approved kitchen. If you know of any restaurant that no longer needs its kitchen equipment, let me know. Kitchen equipment - I need it bad," he said.

The local office of the S.C. Department of Social Services has seen 140 new families within the county apply for food stamps - families that have not been in the food stamp system before, said its director, Cynthia Williams.

Each family has about three members, she said.

Since 2009 started, calls for service have increased about 34 percent for the Barnwell County Sheriff's Office, said Sheriff Ed Carroll.

"We are just now seeing people who have stolen to pay for food," Carroll said. "With job closings, there are people who are dealing with stuff they never have had to deal with before."

Carroll said he would like to contact the county ministerial association for help with people who wouldn't otherwise to go agencies like DSS or Axis 1.

Sam Jordan said he needs a centralized area to gather the different services and agencies together that laid-off workers need instead of shuttling them from one place to another, he said.

Jordan is with the Workforce Investment Area, a division of the Lower Savannah Council of Governments.

A centralized area would also help displaced workers by giving them a chance to socialize with others facing similar problems so them don't feel like they are all alone, he said.

Steve Burnette, the pastor of First Baptist Church, enumerated the number of programs his church is involved in to help the community. He also said the church has big enough facilities for other groups to meet if they needed the space.

"The faith community is a resource you need to leverage," Ervolina said of turning to area churches for help.

Marty Martin, the director of the Barnwell County Economic Development Corp. opened the meeting with a quick overview of current employment and industrial conditions in the county.

"I thought I would try and set the tone for the meeting. The message is that the sky is not falling - we have been here before," he said. "I know it's tough times and the people from Milliken and Hanesbrands are on our minds."

In 1990, the state unemployment average was 13.7 percent and got has high as 16.4 percent in February of that year, he said.

"It (current conditions) is not a precedent, but it's some place that we don't want to go again," Martin said. "Barnwell County is not sitting outside by itself - there are others like us."

Martin presented unemployment percentages of other states as of December 2008. Right now, South Carolina is third in the nation with a 9.5 unemployment rate. Michigan leads with a rate slightly above 12 percent while Rhode Island is at 10 percent.

Statewide, Barnwell County is fifth out of the 46 counties in unemployment with a 15.8 percent rate as of December, which is up from 14.2 percent in November, according to data from the S.C. Employment Security Commission.

Allendale leads the state with an unemployment rate of 19.7 percent in December, an increase from the November level of 17.5 percent, according to Employment Security Commission data.

Barnwell County has been particularly affected by the economy since per capita, more of its people are employed in manufacturing jobs, which have felt the economic downturns more acutely than other business sectors, Martin said.

Martin also outlined future job prospects.

In the short range, Unitech will be creating 50 new jobs this year at its Snelling facility and Horsehead Corp. will add another 65 jobs by 2010 with the building of its zinc kiln, he said.

Longer term projects include the Elkay cabinetmaking facility which should be operational by 2011, creating about 300 jobs. The mixed oxide nuclear fuel facility that Shaw Areva is building at the Savannah River Site will create another 400 to 500 jobs, he said.

"The cupboard is not bare," he said.

A consensus of people at the meeting said that would like to keep the lines of communication open between one another to share ideas.

Laura McKenzie, the publisher of The People-Sentinel, encouraged the group to post their ideas and lists of available resources to the newspaper's new Web site blog spot to keep communication flowing. The Web site - www.thepeoplesentinel.com - has a new feature where people can create their own blog accounts.