Dalton revels in rare good news

DALTON — The happiest place in Georgia Wednesday may well have been the unemployment office in this recession-wracked town.

David Jordy, 26, was applying for unemployment benefits when he heard the news that two new carpet plants will bring an estimated 2,400 jobs to Whitfield County (county seat: Dalton) and neighboring Murray County. After months of struggling with temp work, Jordy, his pregnant wife and their 18-month-old are living with his brother in nearby Tunnel Hill.

“If I got one of them jobs, it’d help me,” Jordy said.

Before the crash, Dalton thrived, thanks to its abundance of carpet mills. People say that back in the day, you could apply for a mill job one day and count on starting the next.

But the housing bust spawned a carpet bust, draining 13,000 jobs from the region's economy and giving the town the unhappy distinction of being the most job-battered place in America. The area's unemployment rate was 10.3 percent in March, about two points higher than the state average.

When Jordy came back from the Army, his father, still employed as a 20-year employee of a carpet mill, couldn’t land his son a job. His brother, meanwhile, has fallen behind on his rent and Jordy feels terrible that he can’t help out.

“This used to be the Carpet Capital of the World,” he said, referring the well-known moniker for Dalton. “Now it ain’t nothing.”

The source of Wednesday’s good news is Engineered Floors, a company founded by former Shaw Industries chief Bob Shaw. Gov. Nathan Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday that the company will invest $450 million in the two plants. The Whitfield County factory will bring create 1,000 jobs, with the rest in Murray County.

Shaw declined to comment Wednesday. But in a statement he credited lawmakers and Deal for making the state more business-friendly by repealing the state’s sales tax on energy used in manufacturing.

“We are pleased that these new facilities will allow for further job creation for the area,” he said.

It’s a remarkable move for Engineered Floors, which broke ground on its first plant in 2009 and now has 1,400 employs in the region, scattered between two plants, a carpet tufting operation, a distribution center and a corporate headquarters. With this expansion, the company almost triples in size.

The project is eligible for up to $69.7 million in tax credits, according to state economic development officials, including training assistance. The company also may receive a discretionary grant, as well as sales tax exemptions for energy and construction, but those details have yet to be announced.

“Georgia has a long history of successful expansions by existing companies such as Engineered Floors, thanks to our spirit of collaboration and unique business assets,” said Chris Cummiskey the state’s commissioner of economic development.

There is no timetable yet on the construction of the two plants, but Deal said “there is a sense of urgency.”

“This is especially important to the northwest corner of Georgia,” he said. “These jobs will go a long way.”

They could hardly be more sorely needed.

Empty homes pock the city, evidence of foreclosures and evictions. Skilled workers are flipping burgers for a living. Residents can list a litany of shuttered businesses: a gift shop, a bridal shop, a gym, a coffee shop, a gas station.

Three weeks ago, John Gilreath was evicted for not paying his rent. Wednesday he was applying for unemployment benefits.

“I have a wife to support,” said Gilreath, 19, standing outside the brick office of the Labor Department. “Bills have to be paid and I have no money.”

For now, the couple is living with his mother.

Bob Shaw is a well-known name here. He is considered, even in these times, a carpet powerhouse. People have worked in his mills for 20 years. There’s a sense that he could be the one to turn this place around.

“I feel that if anybody can, it’s Bob Shaw,” said Debbie Shaw, a waitress at the Oakwood Café downtown. She is no relation to him.

But the news also reignited ill feelings on the part of some residents toward the Latino community. Rhonda Watson said she felt that many of carpet mill jobs went to Latino people, which made it difficult for others to get a job. She worried that could happen again.

Even in the wake of the recession, roughly 22,000 people worked in the carpet and rug industry in the third quarter of 2012, the latest figures available. That’s about 10,000 fewer than did five years ago.

Carpet companies in Georgia supply more than 90 percent of the U.S. carpet market and 54 percent of the nation’s carpet exports, according to state figures. The state’s carpet and rug mill manufacturing jobs represent 71.5 percent of the nation’s total.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington — who has hinted that he may challenge Deal in the GOP primary — alluded to that context Wednesday, delicately downplaying the momentousness of Shaw's move. The specter of Deal announcing thousands of new jobs in his backyard may have rubbed him the wrong way.

“When you have a homegrown industry like the carpet industry, we have projects like this quite frequently,” he said, citing recent expansions of existing plants. “None has gotten the press like this,” he said. “But we’re very pleased to have it.”

Pennington’s nonchalance aside, word spread quickly through the city Wednesday. Dwayne Whaley heard about it as he was heading to the unemployment office.

“I hope this is going to help,” said Whaley, 49, who has been working temporary jobs for months. “I’m going to apply for one.”

Doug Marshman, the manager of Tate’s 66 service station said he’ll look to the influx of employment to help his bottom line.

“People are not spending as much,” he said. “This will be more money flowing to the whole town.”

Still, he does not believe 2,400 jobs could return Dalton to its former glory. “It would be a great help, but I can’t say it would be the savior,” he said.

But over at the Oakwood Café, where it was meatloaf day, people found a lot of hope in the news.

“I think it’s something that could help Dalton revive, put us over this valley,” said kitchen manager James Grant.