BARNWELL, S.C. — Not too long ago, Sheila Folk’s downtown hair salon was standing-room only.
The Barnwell native has owned Circle Cuts for more than 19 years, and not only was she busy, the entire downtown district was buzzing with activity.
In 2009, though, three plants closed or moved out of Barnwell County, and the loss of more than 700 jobs left the approximately 23,000 residents of the county reeling. The Milliken textile plant closed and eliminated 125 jobs, Hanesbrands Inc. eliminated 310 jobs and Allied Air Enterprises eliminated 350 jobs. Unemployment for Barnwell County peaked at 20.7 percent in January 2010.
Then in 2011, announcements for more than 400 jobs involving five industries raised hope in Barnwell County. In October, NK Newlook announced a factory making display cases and retail fixtures. One week later, medical document retrieval service Doc Depot announced it would be expanding operations and creating 50 jobs. Sasco Safety, an Egyptian company that makes traffic cones, announced it will relocate to Barnwell. In November, A&K Textiles announced plans to invest in new Barnwell operations. Climax Global Energy announced in December that it would create a plastics-to-oil recycling facility there.
In all, the companies will invest more than $10 million in expansion and new business.
These announcements were encouraging, but Folk said that things haven’t gotten worse, but they haven’t gotten better.
“We used to be full, the whole circle was full,” she said of downtown. “It used to be very competitive real estate, and now there’s more empty buildings than occupied (ones).”
More jobs will help keep the town viable, but Folk doesn’t see too much changing. “My children will never live in Barnwell,” she said. “There’s just nothing here.”
She and her husband have looked at real estate in Aiken, but moving away from Barnwell is a big step. “It’s kind of hard to leave,” she said. “You hate to leave your hometown.”
Marty Martin, the director of economic development for Barnwell County, said the damage done by the 2009 losses is not going to be remedied overnight, but the projects announced last year will help. Most of the announcements were for jobs that will be added over a period of years, and most of the projects are behind schedule.
“Yes, we had a lot of announcements, and yes, there were a lot of jobs, but they’ve all been a little slower than even they anticipated,” he said. “It’s going to be a slow recovery.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the city of Barnwell went from 4,965 in 2000 to 4,746 in 2010. The unemployment rate for May was 14.4 percent, a slight improvement from 15 percent a year earlier, but still far from the 2008 average of 11.2 percent.
“The new job numbers have not been enough to really make a dent in our unemployment rate yet,” Martin said.
Martin said he’s glad the workforce is not as dependent on a few employers. “I’d rather have 10 companies with 50 employees each than one with 500,” he said.
Barnwell Mayor Edward Lemon said the new jobs will be a huge help economically for longtime Barnwell residents who have stayed through the tough times.
“I think people would still have lived here, they’d just be working somewhere else,” he said.
Barnwell’s close-knit community, school system and $3.1 million recreation department are attractive to businesses looking for a new location, he said, and the Barnwell airport is large enough to facilitate corporate jets.
“I think we have a lot to offer,” he said.
To lifelong Barnwell residents such as Lemon, things would have to get a lot worse before they would leave the town.
Dana Mathias was born in Barnwell and has worked at Anthony’s, a local restaurant, for 25 years. She believes enough people agree with the mayor and will come back as soon as they can. They didn’t want to leave Barnwell, she said, but there weren’t any jobs.
“A lot of people are not here anymore,” she said as she looked around the restaurant.
New jobs help everything, she said and will allow locals to support more restaurants and other businesses that had to shut down as people lost their jobs.
“I think it will get back up,” she said. “This is a charming little town, and there’s enough people who care that will come back if they can.”