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Carolina town finds what happens when its only business departs

What happens when a one-company town becomes a no-company town? The people of Ware Shoals, on the Saluda River, have had a chance to find out. Now that the textile company that was this town's main employer is gone, a number of local residents are being really squeezed. But a good many of them, their personal geography stretched out by the automobile, have simply found new jobs a few miles down the road.

And like an unlikely sapling sprouting from the stump of a fallen tree, a new textile firm has been established where the old one was.

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Last Nov. 5 the Riegel Textile Corporation announced it was pulling out of Ware Shoals. This shutdown of weaving and finishing operations, which threw 900 people out of work, was preceded a couple of years earlier by a shutdown of a yarn preparation plant. Some 850 people lost their jobs at that time, according to Manly Balentine, mayor of Ware Shoals.

These have been two hard blows for a town whose population hovers around 2,000. The bitter joke among the residents has been that ``the only thing running in Ware Shoals is the Saluda River.''

The town itself hasn't felt the full effect of the pullout, since it has yet to go through a budgetary cycle without the tax contributions of Riegel -- which has traditionally provided some 70 to 80 percent of the town's revenues.

``So far, we've been able to see our way clear to meet our budgets, to provide services and maintain things,'' the mayor says. ``Next year will be the crunch, with reduced tax revenues.''

The individuals laid off are ``feeling the pinch'' now, he adds. ``Their unemployment checks have run out, they've spent their savings. Some of the merchants are feeling it, too.'' He laments the closing, a few months back, of Mark's Department Store, Ware Shoals' last full-line clothing store for men, women, and children.

Of the 900 laid off in the second part of Riegel's pullout, 300 came from Ware Shoals, Mayor Balentine says, 300 more from within five miles of the town, and the rest from the surrounding area. State experts, he says, say over 500 of these have either found jobs or retired.

The shutdown was not totally unexpected. ``Some people saw the slowdowns'' in the textile industry, the mayor says, ``and they started getting jobs and commuting.'' The mayor himself commutes to the Greenwood office of Monsanto, the big chemical company.

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``We haven't seen a mass exodus. But there are a lot of homes for sale. And there aren't a lot of folks coming in.''

Meanwhile, G. H. (Sonny) Frederick Jr., a former mayor of Ware Shoals, offers this assessment: ``The mill closing, in the long run, will prove to be the best thing to ever happen to the town.'' He sympathizes with older workers, particularly, who are having a rough time as they seek new jobs.''

Much of the state has diversified its industry, but the lesson has come slowly here. Despite such claims to fame as being ``home of the world's largest catfish festival,'' Ware Shoals' real identity has been as a classic ``company town.'' The town was founded about the same time as the Riegel plants were built, in the first few years of this century.

There was a company store, a company coal plant, a company ice plant. Perhaps most important, Riegel owned the town's water system.

But in Ware Shoals, there is surprising good news on the textile front. Marcamy Sales Corporation of New York City, whose Ware Shoals Dyeing and Printing Inc. unit has been operating since March 15 in leased space in the Riegel property, has just bought that property. The new company employs around 250 people; the cloth it produces ends up in the high-style junior sportswear market -- ``the things the kids are wearing this week,'' as Arthur M. Friedman of Marcamy puts it.

The sale included the water plant, which Marcamy turned over to the town. ``We don't want to be in the water business,'' Mr. Friedman says.

His company has carved a niche for itself by performing might be called industrial resuscitations; he has had previous successes in Fall River, Mass., and Lumberton, N.C. What's new for Friedman about the Ware Shoals project is that he is using only one of the buildings bought from Riegel and is trying to lease the rest ``to make a sort of industrial park.''

He has one tenant, a shoe factory, signed up so far. ``There have been people interested in warehousing, but we're trying to stay away from that. We want something that will create jobs.''

So does the rest of the town. Ware Shoals is an elderly place -- 60 percent of the population are senior citizens. Even a booster like the mayor, asked about the town's young people, concedes, ``Most of 'em leave -- they go off to college and don't come back.'' Still, he says, ``We hope we'll get some diversified industry . . . all the things you need to make an industry go are right here.''

Ware Shoals is not without its charms, such as an attractive riverside park. A sign at the town limits proclaims Ware Shoals to be a GREAT town -- a winner of the Governor's Rural Economic Achievement Trophy. This distinction puts the town on the list when businesses come to the state to discuss plant sitings with economic development officials.

Over at the local outlet of Bankers Trust of South Carolina, branch manager Mary Pearman calls the Riegel pullout ``such a drastic thing -- you really feel for all those people. In a small town it's all like family.'' But she is optimistic -- especially if Friedman is able to draw in some more tenants.

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