Signs posted at the town limits of this small rural community in South Carolina's rolling Piedmont hills proclaim it as one of the state's "Great Towns."
The award was made by the governor in recognition of local efforts to attract industry to rural areas. More important, however, economic profiles of towns receiving the award are used by the state to help business prospects identify possible relocation sites.
Ware Shoals' profile shows that it has a skilled work force, an abundant water supply, an adequate waste-treatment facility, and nearly 1 million square feet of manufacturing space under one roof. There is also access to rail and major highways, as well as to airports in nearby Greenville and Greenwood.
Those are the legacies of the Riegel Textile Corp., which built Ware Shoals and ran it for nearly 80 years.
But last November, Riegel closed down its mill here, the town's only industry, and now there are other, less appealing legacies as well: Severe unemployment. Mortgage foreclosures. Outmigration. Empty stores. An eroding tax base.
On the banks of the Saluda River and tucked away in the corners of three counties, Ware Shoals is only 17 miles north of the bustling county seat of Greenwood. Nonetheless, it has thrived in near isolation for most of the 20th century as Riegel's company town.
Now the company's name is visible only on parts of the mammoth green-and-gray brick textile mill and a truck depot at the edge of town. But the mark of Riegel remains deeply imprinted here.
Green and white frame bungalows, built by Riegel for its employes around the turn of the century, stand as mute reminders of a paternalistic era. Spotless, tree-lined streets radiating from the former mill are uncommonly free of children.
This enclave around the mill has become a haven for retired Riegel employes like 78-year-old Butler (Buck) Koon, who spends hours fetching "the best fishing worms in the world" from a catalpa tree at the edge of his front yard.
Elsewhere evidence of Ware Shoals' decline is plain. Empty stores and shuttered buildings dominate North Greenwood Avenue, a moribund commercial strip that has lost at least 60 percent of its former businesses. In residential areas away from the center of town, boarded-up windows and doors on brick ramblers identify young families, former Riegel workers, who were unable to find other jobs and could not continue mortgage payments on their homes.
"The parental effect was very evident in that Riegel built everything and supplied everything and just took care of all the people in the town," Mayor Manly Ballentine recalled. "It was a very good setup, and if the people needed a job, Riegel needed people to work. So they had a mutual agreement, and it worked out real fine for a long time."
The relationship ended with devastating suddenness and consequences for 900 Riegel employes last November when the company, squeezed by the massive influx of imported textile products, closed its Ware Shoals mill. Riegel had laid off more than 800 workers at the same mill in 1982.
Riegel manufactures a variety of products for apparel, industrial uses and home furnishings in plants in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Virginia. The Ware Shoals plant produced fabrics for consumer items but it was also a major supplier of finished cloth to the military. Since closing the Ware Shoals plant, Riegel has farmed out some of the work that was done here while dropping other lines of business altogether.
In a statement explaining the decision to close the Ware Shoals plant, Riegel blamed the surge of textile imports for a sharp decline in the company's output and earnings. Officials of the privately owned company have declined to discuss the possible long-term effects of the plant's closing on the residents of Ware Shoals.
Nearly half of those workers are still unemployed. The despair of Ware Shoals' unemployed and the optimism of its officials are the essence of a town trying to cope with an economic disaster. Individual profiles of Ware Shoals' 2,350 residents provide a different picture from the "Great Towns" economic profile in the state's industrial development office. Coping With Unemployment
For Thomas and Rhoda Brooks, life after Riegel is operating a vegetable stand from the back of a pickup truck in the shade of an abandoned service station across from City Hall.
"I try to sell this produce in the spring and summer 'cause people got to eat," said Brooks, an unemployed construction worker.
Rhoda Brooks lost her job in the early round of layoffs at Riegel and suffered the same fate at three other textile mills in this part of the state. The experience hasn't embittered her, she says, but she confesses that being unemployed "has hurt terrible. It's discouraging a lot."
She and her husband do "pretty good" selling vegetables when they can get enough to operate the produce stand, which doubles as the town's unofficial center for the exchange of information about job possibilities.
"It's helping to buy gas," said Rhoda Brooks. "We're not making that much, but sometimes somebody will come along and say, 'Well, you ought to go to so-and-so and put your application in.' "
The search for work "is discouraging a lot," she added. "You got to have money to move someplace else, and you've got to have money to go and hunt for a job. You can't take a $66 weekly unemployment compensation check and go huntin' everywhere for work."
There are few businesses in Ware Shoals, so there are few jobs to be had here.
The mill, which employed as many as 5,000 at the peak of its manufacturing operations in the 1950s and '60s, attracted workers from miles away. Variety stores, consumer finance offices, service stations, and clothing and furniture stores that were open when Riegel began cutting its work force stand empty today.
"We've got two grocery stores uptown, two drugstores, a couple of filling stations, one cafe and a couple of beer joints. That's about it now," Thomas Brooks said.
About three miles west, James Williams pulls up to a small neighborhood convenience store and hurries inside to escape the oppressive late summer heat. He has been unemployed since Riegel pulled out. This was the last week for which he would be eligible for unemployment compensation.
Williams has managed to keep creditors at bay, but now he is threatened with foreclosure on his home. "I just about got it paid for. I got three more years on it."
Time ran out several months ago for other less fortunate Riegel employes. Padlocked and boarded-up houses in the Pine Hill subdivision are grim reminders of foreclosures.
Sitting in the living room of her home in the community of modest brick and frame houses, Mary E. Norman told of her brother's determined -- but futile -- bid to keep his house, which sits empty across the street.
"He lived on social services and food stamps, and my momma and daddy helped him, but he had to give the house up. About nine or 10 houses in Pine Hills are empty, and I'm just hanging on," she said.
She added that she works at a textile plant in Greenwood but "it's not looking too good there, either. People are really hurting."
"You can't find a job around here," complained Todd Cullen, a friend of Norman's.
Cullen, 51, had hoped to get a job at Ware Shoals Printing and Dye Co., which occupies a section in the Riegel mill that it purchased earlier this year. But "things don't look too good there, either," he said. Looking for Work
The employment outlook is especially bleak for Cullen and dozens of former Riegel employes who are age 50 and older. Other big textile companies with plants in this region of the state -- J. P. Stevens Co. and Milliken & Co. -- also are cutting back in the face of import pressures. The same is true in other sections of a broad textile manufacturing belt that extends into nearby North Carolina. The two states are at the heart of the textile industry's operations in the South.
The North Carolina Employment Security Commission reported there were 14,465 unemployed textile workers receiving unemployment insurance at the beginning of August. Unemployment among textile workers in North Carolina is 6.5 percent, followed by 6.1 percent in the apparel industry -- the highest rates among all employment categories
South Carolina's textile industry employs 29,000 fewer workers than it did as recently as 1981.
Meanwhile, other industries haven't shown much interest in hiring and retraining older unemployed textile workers. Many workers in that category have decided to retire rather than move and start over.
Complete unemployment figures for Ware Shoals are unavailable, but Mayor Ballentine estimates that at least 400 of the last 900 employes to be laid off by Riegel are still without jobs. The other 500 either have taken early retirement or have gone to work in other areas, he said.
"Our population is made up of a lot of senior citizens, and with our situation as it is, a lot of young people are moving to find jobs and end up not coming back."
Ballentine, who was elected mayor the day after Riegel announced its decision to close the mill, recalled there were "an awful lot of problems to overcome."
Sitting at a picnic table in a park outside the town hall, Ballentine bemoaned the fact that Ware Shoals' business section has "dried up." A Common Pattern -------
The story of what happened in Ware Shoals is fairly typical of what has occurred in many communities where textile manufacturers have closed plants over the past four years. Invariably, the closing of a plant is followed by an exodus of small businesses and a virtual collapse of local economies.
"Our last clothing store went out of business about three months ago," Ballentine said. "It hurts considerably in that our people end up going out of town to buy and spend their money. We lose from the standpoint of jobs as well as business licenses and that kind of thing."
The loss of Riegel not only wiped out the lion's share of business license taxes but took away more than 50 percent of Ware Shoals' property taxes that the textile manufacturer contributed to the town treasury.
"If you just wipe out that total tax dollar that Riegel was putting in, you're talking about reducing services by 30 to 50 percent," Ballentine calculated.
Glancing at the huge multi-story brick mill towering behind the town hall, Ballentine underscored the magnitude of the community's loss: "Riegel built this town. They started in 1906 and built these houses near the mill and provided everything a person needed for survival; the company store, the power, the streets, everything."
So far, Ware Shoals has managed to maintain services without raising taxes, but Ballentine anticipates "a bigger pinch" next year.
"We've got more empty houses in Ware Shoals than I've ever seen," said Marion P. Carnell, Democratic representative to the state General Assembly and owner of the Ware Shoals Piggly Wiggly supermarket. "I'm losing a lot of my younger customers. They're moving out of town. We've been left with a lot of senior citizens. We had about 7,000 people in our trading area. It's down to about 6,000 now."
While Carnell has no intention of moving -- business at his supermarket is down about 8 percent from a year ago -- most buildings along the commercial strip have been abandoned. "We've lost about 14 businesses in the last two or three years," Carnell estimated. Shaky Optimism
Still, Ballentine is optimistic about Ware Shoals' ability to rebound. Town officials have hired an economic development specialist to bring in new industry and have joined Greenwood County in developing a broader business attraction program.
In the meantime, Ballentine hopes to buy time and "break even" by selling water from the water works, inherited from Riegel, to residents and to the Ware Shoals Printing and Dye Co. The printing and dye company bought the mill from Riegel but utilizes only part of the manufacturing facility, hoping to rent space to other businesses.
Marvin Crawford, owner of one of two drugstores in town, shares Ballentine's optimism, though he believes it will take several years to resolve many of Ware Shoals' problems.
As chairman of the town's nonprofit development corporation, Crawford took the lead in persuading a small shoe manufacturer to locate in Ware Shoals. The plant will employ about 50 persons initially.
"If we can get five small industries that will employ at least 100 persons each, with the diversification, then more people would actually be working for longer periods of time than they were with the textile industry," said Crawford, who once served as chairman of the Greenwood County Council.
"Even though we won't have an employer the size of Riegel, hopefully we'll be able to wake people up to the fact that we will have to diversify our economic base in Ware Shoals. I think we will be better off as a town than we were just depending on Riegel as the sole employer here.
"I think, in retrospect, as we look back, hopefully in five years, the closing of Riegel will be a blessing in disguise," Crawford added. "We just have to hitch up our belts and get after it."