Originally created 06/05/06

Avondale's home is used to loss



MONROE - Next door to the soon-to-close Avondale Mills denim plant in Monroe stands an old brick storefront painted with foot-high letters to announce its name: Old Mill Antiques.

Soon, it might be one of the few reminders of the industry that once complemented the agriculture-based economy of Walton County.

With each passing month this year, the city's old textile industry has whittled down its work force in preparation for the final closure of two mills.

It is nothing new in Monroe.

In the past decade the town has lost 20 percent of its manufacturing jobs.

Although the number of jobs in the county on the whole has risen sharply during the same decade, longtime factory workers - some of whom have worked in the mills for more than 20 years - will need new training to land retail, service and technology-based jobs that have moved to town, according to John Lawrence, the assistant director of work force information at the state Department of Labor.

By the end of July, the 100 employees who work at Avondale Mills' flagship denim factory will start looking for new jobs.

Avondale Mills announced in April that the Monroe plant would most likely close, along with its 18 sister plants in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. The decision to close all of Avondale's plants and lay off the company's 4,000 employees was made final last week when Avondale's board of directors approved a shutdown and the liquidation of its plants.

The company, whose corporate headquarters is in Monroe, has been a part of town since 1895 and has been incorporated since 1845, making it the oldest textile manufacturer in the United States, according to the company's Web site.

A Securities and Exchange Commission filing Tuesday reiterated the company's position that the closures are the result of foreign competition and damages from a January 2005 Norfolk Southern train wreck at the Graniteville plant.

The derailment damaged the factory and killed six employees.

County economic development officials are positive the Monroe mill's employees will find new jobs, said Nancy Kinsey, director of the Walton County Development Authority.

In addition to a Wal-Mart distribution center that employs about 1,000 people and is planning to add several hundred more, a Solo cup distribution center will open within the next year and employ about 150 workers.

Walton County is becoming a retail and commercial center as development spreads east from Gwinnett County. The county's unemployment rate sits at about 3.9 percent - a little less than the state's 4.3 percent rate.

But many of the new jobs are in the retail and food-service industries, which have grown with the county's population. These jobs pay about $300 to $500 a week, while the county's manufacturing jobs pay about $900 a week on average, according to a Labor Department report from 2004.

Mr. Lawrence hopes training and the other job-placement assistance through the Labor Department will help former Avondale workers move into new careers that pay a living wage, not just give them a job.

"There are really no boundaries to what a worker can find in this area depending on what skills they have and what training they want to go through," he said.