US town puffed out by recession

Economic downturn threatens to extinguish a once flourishing tobacco factory town.


    Queues at Danville's local food banks have increased by 45 per cent in recent times [Getty/Gallo]

    Al Jazeera is following the effects of the global recession on five towns across the globe. Cath Turner and Catherine Stancl report from Danville, USA.

    Danville, Virgina is a quiet town of 45,000 people. It is located in the east of the United States near the border with North Carolina, on the cusp of the deep south.

    It was once a booming city where tobacco, textiles and manufacturing dominated the economic and physical landscape.

    From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, Danville was a hub of the tobacco industry. Textiles were also big business, with silk and lace factories and clothing manufacturers opening up shop and employing thousands of people.

    For decades, these industries brought prosperity to the town and its population. But in the 1990s the bubble burst.

    Textile factories slashed their workforce or closed up altogether, relocating to other countries in search of cheap labour. Thousands of people lost their jobs at an alarming rate.

    Abandoned factories

    The tobacco and textile factories which once stood as a proud sign of success and accomplishment for Danville, sat empty and abandoned. 

    However, other areas of manufacturing were still going  strong and the town became reliant on large industrial factories, such as Goodyear Tyres, to provide employment.

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    But now, Danville's industrial prowess has stalled; the face of manufacturing changed so rapidly that people no longer had the skill set needed to operate more advanced machinery.

    Then the recession hit. The worsening economy meant less demand for product, and manufacturing declined.

    Over the last several months, nearly a dozen major retail stores have closed down. Hundreds of people at the town's biggest factories are being laid off. The unemployment rate in Danville now stands at 16.8 per cent, one of the highest in the state of Virgina and twice the US average.

    With the jobless numbers mounting over the last several months, Danville has been trying to diversify its economy. There are massive efforts to re-educate the population in computer skills and new technology to get people back to work and lure new business to the community. 

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    Critics say this effort is simply too late, and that Danville now faces an uphill battle to get back to the prosperity it once knew.

    The local food bank has seen a 45 per cent increase in the number of people seeking handouts in the last four years. 

    Taking a stroll through the heart of downtown on Main Street, empty store fronts and "for sale" signs tell the story of a town in desperate need of a revamp.

    There are constant layoff and store closures in Danville. In March, Goodyear Tyre laid off 400 people. Corning Glass announced it will close up its Danville plant by the end of 2009, leaving another 200 people out of work.

    Yorktowne Cabinetry, which once boasted nearly 300 employees, is down to around 75 workers; job centres are seeing an influx of people looking for employment.

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    Job fairs and networking meetings are held frequently throughout Danville. They are flooded with people, young and old, looking for work. Some are jobless for the first time in their lives, and their unemployment insurance is running out.

    They are overwhelmed by trying to find a job, especially in this economy, with many companies implementing a hiring freeze. And jobs are scarce in Danville.

    Hundreds of resumes are being submitted to companies that only have a handful of positions to offer. But the prospects are especially tough for those whose working life consisted only of operating heavy machinery.

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    Part of the community's efforts in getting people back to work in Danville lies in re-education. Many people simply don't have basic computer and technology skills. 

    Danville Community College offers computer training and courses in manufacturing technology, so that people can diversify and increase their chances of finding employment.

    Danville is trying to lure new business from overseas - particularly in the technology sector - to help get the town back on track and its people back to work.

    But with the global finance crisis, businesses are reluctant to change course and expand, which has left Danville struggling for survival in a desperate economic climate.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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