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Needle Towns Search Haystack for New Jobs

AS chicken and okra sizzle in a deep fryer, Cathy Caraway laments the loss of the lunchtime crowd. Employees at the Phillips-Van Heusen apparel mill across the street used to pack the booths at her Chevron Convenience store here.

But in December, the largest manufacturing employer in town closed, and overnight 230 mill jobs were gone. The town was stunned. Ms. Caraway says shuttering the Van Heusen mill will probably force her deli out of business too. ''We miss them very much,'' she says. ''This is rough on them; it's rough on the town.''

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Caraway's sentiments are echoed by folks throughout this community of 1,564 in the rural southeastern corner of Alabama. Since 1962, many people have earned a living sewing men's dress shirts at the one-story, tan-brick factory here. But Van Heusen says it can't compete with countries that pay lower wages.

Clayton's story is being repeated across the rural South, home to one of the nation's largest concentration of garmentmakers. As the apparel industry continues to shrink and move offshore, many towns - especially small ones, country roads away from an urban center - are losing the economic engine that has enabled them to remain viable. It's a trend that some experts on the South view with growing concern.

''As these mill towns lose their prominence in Southern life, the core of many small-town Southern cultures will go away ... and the rural South will increasingly lose control of its own destiny,'' says Tennant McWilliams, history professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The needle trades in the United States have been in decline for more than two decades as companies have moved to countries where labor costs are cheaper. The textile industry, which makes fabrics and is more capital intensive, has not been as severely affected.

But apparel - which relies on factories full of workers stitching together garments - has taken a greater hit. In 1970, for example, the industry employed 1.36 million people, compared with 1.26 million in 1980, 1.04 million in 1990, and 895,000 by the end of September 1995, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Since the '70s, more than half of those workers have been in the South.

Last year, more apparel plant closings and job layoffs occurred below the Mason-Dixon line than in previous years, says Donald Ratajczak, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University in Atlanta. Higher cotton prices and sluggish clothing sales were mostly to blame, forcing mills that weren't efficient to shut down.

Scrambling for jobs

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In Alabama, nearly a dozen apparel factories stopped production recently in small towns across the state, including Vanity Fair Mills, Fruit of the Loom, and Van Heusen. In some communities, the mill was the dominant employer. With no jobs to offer laid-off workers, town leaders are left scrambling to find other prospects.

For many towns that's not an easy task. Here in Clayton, Mayor Tommy Horne has mailed 2,500 letters to apparel companies across the US, listing facts and figures about Clayton, the empty plant for use, and the work force. He says he's targeting another apparel company because the Van Heusen employees are already trained, have years of experience, and boast an excellent work ethic. He also believes it would be harder to retrain them for another industry.

So far, only a few companies have responded, most writing ''thank you for your letter; we'll keep you in mind,'' he says. But, ''we'll keep on calling; we'll keep on searching,'' he vows.

Some Alabama industry recruiters say towns like Clayton shouldn't be so choosy and should target another manufacturing industry that may be more stable. Others contend that in many instances there will be nothing at all to replace those jobs, which will continue the trend of rural people moving to urban areas. At least one historian calls that a dangerous pattern.

''As the people leave these small towns that means the land is not much in demand for anything,'' Mr. McWilliams says. What will happen, McWilliams predicts, is that timber companies from the Northeast, Portland, Ore., or Seattle will buy up land in the South. Outside interests will then have a disproportionate influence on how the land is used, and they can hire lobbyists to manipulate the state legislatures to keep taxes and social services down.

''[They will] make it even more difficult for the South to modernize,'' he says. McWilliams says this is already happening in parts of Alabama.

Some say the answer to revitalizing rural towns could lie in cultural tourism. ''The culture and history of our region is not going to move, so if you develop an infrastructure that is based on the literature and music and arts of the region that's a foundation that is far firmer than garment factories,'' says William Ferris, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

Mr. Ferris points to the example of Mountain View, Ark., an isolated community that has built a multimillion-dollar tourism industry on its arts, crafts, and music. ''Virtually every community will have something that could be developed,'' he says.

Stitch in time ...

Economists, though, predict the apparel and textile industry will continue to contract in the South. The mills that survive will be those investing in advanced equipment, worker retraining, and other moves that make them more efficient and competitive.

In Alabama, for instance, Russell Corp., invested in worker training and updated technology. As a result, they expanded operations in the state last year. The company, employing 18,000 people, even bought some plants that had closed and rehired the unemployed workers.

Here in Clayton, residents hold out hope the same kind of thing could happen in their town. ''I wish they could get something in there soon, so we can go back to work,'' sighs Nettie Rodgers, a Van Heusen employee for 16 years.

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