MILLEN, Ga. --- Emily Williams said she has noticed a new spring in the steps of Jenkins County residents since the state announced in September it would locate a privately run prison in the area.
"The morale around town is better," said Williams, a Millen native who recently opened her own restaurant downtown. "I guess the collective feeling of the town has changed. We're more hopeful."
Jobs have been in short supply in Jenkins County and its county seat, Millen, since several large manufacturers started outsourcing labor several years ago.
The county has the third-highest unemployment rate in the state at 19.3 percent for August, the most recent data available from the Georgia Department of Labor. That compares with 19 percent a year earlier and 19.7 percent in July.
The location of the CCA Jenkins Correctional Center is expected to bring 200 full-time jobs, most of which will be local hires, according to a statement from Corrections Corporation of America, the company that will operate the facility.
Hundreds of additional jobs will be brought in for construction once ground is broken later this month, said Paula Herrington, the executive director of the Jenkins County/Millen Chamber of Commerce and Development Authority.
That doesn't include all of the potential retailers and industries that could be attracted to the county once the prison opens in early 2012.
"We don't have any industry here. It's going to provide jobs," Herrington said. "It's going to provide the local economy with a stimulus, with restaurants and hotel/motels and grocery stores."
A fast decline
It wasn't always this way for Jenkins County, a rural county of about 8,500 people about 50 miles south of Augusta.
Millen Mayor King Rocker recalled when the county was home to nearly 1,800 industrial jobs. But that was before the recession and one major company after another moved out.
"At one time we were on the other end of the rainbow and had a low unemployment rate," Rocker said. "Right now, we don't have any industrial jobs in the county. The largest employer is probably the hospital."
Jockey International was the first large employer to leave, abandoning its textile plant that once employed more than 700 people in 2006.
Home manufacturer Bellcrest Homes and Metal Industries soon followed.
In August 2007, the unemployment rate was 8.7 percent. By that time the next year it stood at 15.4 percent, according to the state Department of Labor.
"At one point, this was the place to find a job," said Rosa Holley, a school bus driver and employee at Millen Consignment Shop. "We had a lot of places, and then they just dried up."
Terri Reeves, the owner of the Charm Barn in downtown Millen, said her gift and flower shop has done better this year than the previous two. She said she hopes that momentum continues with the arrival of the prison.
"It's been tough," she said. "The Charm Barn has been in business over 60 years and has some pretty deep roots, which has helped it hang on in tough times."
A reason to hope
Besides employment, the correctional facility will provide a boost to the county's tax digest because it will be privately operated, Herrington said.
If the state had chosen to operate the facility, that would not be the case.
The county still must complete infrastructure to the Pine Avenue land parcel within the next year, Rocker said. He estimated that will cost between $3.4 million and $4 million.
Some of that will be financed with $750,000 from saved sales tax funds, and Rocker said he believes much of the rest can be financed with grants because of the county's employment situation.
Lucretia Davis, who owns J.D.'s Beauty and Barber Salon, J.D.'s Hair and Beauty Supplies and Millen Consignment Shop, said she thinks her sales will pick up by 25 percent in the next six months with the new customers she expects to see.
"I think a lot of the merchants are excited that we're going to get more business generated," Davis said. "We're looking forward to something new."
Officials also hope that the recent discovery of Civil War artifacts at Camp Lawton in the county will attract visitors, though Rocker said that will likely take longer because a museum to house the discoveries needs to be built.
"I think it's a more long-term project, but I think it will draw a lot of people here," he said.
The location of the prison is the culmination of years of hard work, said Bobby Dwelle, who owns Bobby Dwelle Insurance Agency in Millen and founded the area's development authority.
But even in better times, jobs weren't created overnight, he said, and that will continue to be the case.
"It's just going to take time," he said. "It takes time to develop."