Four years ago, Ben Davis became the mayor of this town of 5,000 people with one basic platform: Davis set out to get his community a share of the economic development prosperity that has brought a clear measure of change to this state.
Today, after deciding to return to his business, Davis runs the town's radio station and weekly newspaper. And Davis thinks he accomplished his goal, leaving office after bringing 13 new industrial plants here in less than three years and increasing the community's tax base 2 1/2 times.
"I don't think this is a blessed area," Davis said in an interview recently in the one-story frame building that houses both the newspaper and the 1000-watt radio station. "It's no miracle, but the geography and political climate of South Carolina has certainly helped us all."
Fountain Inn, small even by this region's standards, is in many ways a mirror of the state, and its success says a lot about the expansion of the Southeast. Davis, like economists and business leaders in South Carolina and across this region, believe the South is relatively immune from the economic uncertainties that a recession this year could brng to many parts of the country.
Although the changing mix of industry in the South makes their regional economy increasingly like that of the rest of the country, a number of factors are expected to mitigate the consequences of recession. For example, the growth of new industries, the warm climate with less dependence on heating oil and most significantly the efforts by private industry to limit the expansion of organized labor leads to the conclusion that the apparent nationwide recession means less to the South than to the Northeast.
"I suspect that the recession will be milder in the South than the rest of the country," said Charles Haulk of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. "But we can't escape having one."
Former mayor Davis agrees. "You may have a recession everywhere but here. I don't see how we can be hurt as bad as a lot of places will be. Our growth has been slow, but, hopefully, we've got the ball rolling."
South Carolina is filled with economic development success stories, larger in scale, but similar in important ways to Fountain Inn. Greenville, just a half hour north of here, may be the region's boom town.
An agressive local Chamber of Commerce with a $797,000 budget this year, picturesque geography and a labor force with a union membership of about 3 percent are part of the formula that has made Greenville a model of economic development for what once was called the "New South."
More than 26,000 new jobs have been added to Greenville County since 1960, representing investment by new and existing industries of more than $634 million. The unemployment rate is about 3.4 percent. The area has low taxes, good weather and a steady supply of virtually union-free labor, a fact the local chamber markets agressively.
"We're not blatant about being anti-union," said Carroll Gray, executive vice president of the Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce.
"We encourage our members to deal with their people fairly and understand their problems. Labor unions derive their success from discontent, unfairness and mistreatment. If the basis for that disenchantment is not there, unions can't win. Good management can avoid unionism. Poor management invites it."
Behind the rosy picture painted by most business spokesmen in the region, however, is a slightly less perfect world, where rural poverty and urban ghettos are familiar sites. It is also a region where per capita income lags well behind the rest of the country and where some experts see only limited economic progress for the poor, particularly the black poor.
As elsewhere in the nation, inflation is cutting into the spending power of both rich and poor in the South. In addition, the South, in many parts, is suffering from a mild, but increasingly significant, housing shortage. And finally, the south is a place where the critics of Southern corporate management argue that workplace illness, such as brown lung disease among textile workers, is practically the norm. "The beneficiaries of the last 10 years are basically the same people as the previous 10 years," said Steve Suitts, executive director of the Southern Regional Council. "The theory that everyone will be brought along by economic growth is only in part true."
Suitts pointed out that four out of five of the nation's rural black poor live in the Southeast, and he noted that half of the working black men in the South earn under $6,000 a year. The statistics for black women are even more discouraging.
"What we find most remarkable about the economic development in the South is the conflicting indicators," Suitts said. "On one hand, they show amazing increases in economic activity, and on the other hand they show the realtive immobility of some people's economic status. The relationship of earnings between blacks and whites in the South has not moved very much."
A visit to this surging region, howevery, demonstrates that for significant parts of the South, the substantial recruiting of industry is a glossy demonstration of the region's strength. Greenville is dotted with luxurious homes, a downtown redevelopment program and an art museum displaying 26 Andrew Wyeth orignials, purchased recently for the civic arts complex by a prominent family for $5 million from film mogul Joseph L. Levine.
The city also boasts of the 7,000-student Greenville Technical College, which trains South Carolinians for work in the many diversified industries that have flocked to the region. In fact, the state's Division of Industrial and Economic Development virtually guarantees in its promotional literature programs "individually designed to meet the manpower needs of your company."
Greenville and Fountain Inn are not especially unique, either for the state or the entire region. Father South, in Greenwood, a quiet community of 25,000, the growth is similar. Within one 24-hour period last year, three major companies, Union Carbide, Westinghouse and Reliance Electric, all announced major plant construction projects in Greenwood, which had been, and to a certain extent still is, dominated by Greenwood Mills, a thriving textile company.
"Ten Ears ago, we didn't have anything like this level of activity" said Dan Mackey, executive director of the Upper Savannah Council of Governments. Mackey, a savvy and aggressive, yet folksy planner, says the six-country area has just started to grow.
Mackey says the area has virtually no union activities and boasts of a populace that prides itself on generations of work in local mills. But he's willing to admit that his area "is not immune to a national recession." Likewise, Ben Laurence, a local and successful real estate entrepreneur, notes a near tripling of sales last year compared with 1978 and "says that every real estate agent there is doing better."
By most reckonings, the South is better prepared for an economic down turn this year than it was seven years ago, when the South's great boosters were building like crazy. "We don't have the grandiouse overbuilding we had in 1973 and 1974," said Haulk of the Atlanta Fed branch. The Trust Company of Georgia notes in a December 1979 report that the Achilles heel of the region, the construction industry "is not as vulnerable this time.
"Available data show very little, if any, overbuilding. As one indication, a significantly smaller proportion of the labor force is engaged in construction than prior to the last recession. Also, the capital-poor Southeast should be a major benefactor of government and quasi-government mortgage programs and regulatory changes which have increased the availabilty of fund for housing."
In addition, economists unanimously agree with the Georgia instituion's assessment that the expansion of the region's economy has to help. "A lesser concentration in durable goods manufacturing than elsewhere in the U.S. should also be a plus for the Southeast during this recession," the Trust Company economics department stated.
But James C. Armstrong, associate economist with the Trust Company, said North Carolina, with the region's highest percentage of its workforce involved in manufacturing, "is likely to go through a fairly significant slowdown."
Furthermore, North Carolina with its heavy reliance on the furniture industry, is feeling the effects of the housing slowdown. If houses aren't being built, the furniture market is likely to feel the aftereffects. Predictions are that housing activity in the South is likely to decline by as much as 25 percent this year, although that drop is half the 1975 cut in permits.
One thing emerges clearly from an examination of the Southern economy and its growth.The Southeast in 1980 is a region steeped in tradition and a sense of optimism that has characterized Southern life. Although the so-called economic war between the states, the Snowbelt-Sunbelt controversy,, has brought new attention to the region's problems and promise, many Southerners dismiss it as overblown.
"we never contacted anyone and said you should get out of the Northeast, and I know of no one who has," Davis said.
The south has erased its conservative image only partially from the era when civil rights were dominating the nation's consciousness. Union organizers in the region say their biggest battles, fights that will further test the region's resiliancy, are ahead of them. E. T. Kehrer, the AFL-CIO's Civil Rights Department's Southern Area director, believes that in the early years of the new decade, the South will just begin to feel the effects of successful unionism.
"The word is increasingly getting out in the South that if you work long hours in a textile mill for very low wages, there is something that can be done," Kehrer said, noting that the South's civil rights history can be tested only by the fact that black workers organize faster than white workers. "You couldn't organize a segregated society," Kehrer said. "But in the 1980s the South's union growth rate will no doubt exceed the past."