NEW ELLENTON - The Atomic City celebrated itself Saturday because, well, it's still around and people there are happy about it.
New Ellenton's nickname became associated with atomic energy after the federal government relocated the town to make way for the Savannah River Site. That was more than 50 years ago, and it has been in the nuclear facility's shadow ever since.
The town's fortunes have ebbed and flowed in sync with those at SRS. When the Cold War was in full swing, hotels and restaurants in the town, located just outside SRS on state Highway 19, bustled with activity.
Today, with about 13,000 workers at SRS, roughly half of what it was in the early 1990s, the boarded-up KFC and out-of-business Huddle House restaurants are ominous signals of what could lay ahead if activity at the site continues to slow.
If the town's future truly is tied to declining business at SRS, there was no glaring sign of pessimism at the Atomic City Festival. Hundreds of people milled about the town's Municipal Park, eating, fraternizing and enjoying one another's company in a show of town unity.
Children's rides and the constant smell of simmering pork and chicken barbecue gave the day a carnivallike atmosphere. Car enthusiasts put their hot rods on display; martial artists left large crowds in awe as they cracked boards and bricks with their hands and feet; and folks stuck around with the promise of a fireworks display after nightfall.
"A lot of people tell you there's no life after the Savannah River Site," said Eartha Rogers, a lifelong New Ellenton resident who helped organize Saturday's party. "I'm here to tell you there is.
"People here don't just give up. They keep pushing."
Horace Bush used to live on a farm in what's now referred to as old Ellenton, a town that had about 800 residents when it was wiped from the map to make way for SRS. His family relocated to New Ellenton, and he worked at SRS for three years before moving to New Jersey.
He was gone about 30 years before returning in 1985, adding to the town's population of roughly 2,300. He and his wife, Ethel, run the We Care assisted living facility near town.
He said it would be difficult for New Ellenton to survive without SRS, but he remained optimistic.
"It has a future to it," Mr. Bush said. "It's conditioned to grow."
Members of the town met last weekend at a two-day informational meeting organized in part by the Department of Energy and Westinghouse Savannah River Co., which runs the site. Representatives showed town leaders how to apply for state and federal grants aimed at assisting small towns such as New Ellenton.
Mayor Jim Sutherland said he left the meetings optimistic about the town's future. Police Chief Van McMillan recently got grant money that has provided identification bracelets for schoolchildren, Ms. Rogers said.
Barbara Lawrence has worked as a truck driver at SRS for 23 years. She's uncertain about SRS' future, but she said she's confident the Tupperware business she runs out of her home will be successful.
"The way things look, the town's going to have to get by without the site," she said. "I think they're getting to their last days."
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895 or email@example.com.