Originally created 11/05/06

Down, but not out



GRANITEVILLE - This struggling mill town has suffered its share of blows in the past two years.

Likened to a boxer, it is bruised and battered but appears to be equipped with a steel chin.

"These are good, hardworking people, I'm telling you," said Doug Silas, who's owned the Chick-N-Snack restaurant in Graniteville for 28 years. "You can knock them down, but you're not going to keep them down."

A look at the town's immediate past and what's going on now shows that it's still standing, albeit wobbly.

Some say Graniteville's string of bad luck can be traced to November 2004, when five Avondale Mills Inc. employees who'd just gotten off work were killed when a train struck their car.

Tight-knit townspeople, many of whom had complained about dangerous railroad crossings in Graniteville, were emotionally shaken by the wreck.

They staggered.

Now they're getting a symbolic lift from their corner.

Sometime before year's end, the state Department of Transportation will announce which company it has hired to realign train tracks and install crossing arms to make the intersection safer, state House Rep. Roland Smith, R-Langley, said last week.

The blow that brought Graniteville to its knees - the two-train collision that released about 60 tons of chlorine, killing nine people and injuring hundreds more in January 2005.

The town's people are getting help. The state Department of Health and Environmental Control announced details last week about a second round of health screenings being paid for with $450,000, aimed at reaching people who were exposed to the toxic gas.

Some thought the mill village was down for the count when Avondale Mills, the town's economic engine that employed 2,000 people, announced in May that it was going out of business.

Parkdale Mills, based in Gastonia, N.C., bought one of the mills, sparing about 250 jobs. Aiken County businessman Weldon Wyatt and his associates bought another, saving 100 more positions.

There are still five mills standing empty, but the federal Labor Department announced it was giving $280,000 to local economic leaders to spur textile redevelopment in Aiken and nine other counties. Economic officials also set up a career center specifically to help those laid off from Avondale.

Private business and elected leaders at the local, state and federal level get credit for some of the town's rebound.

"We went to work," Mr. Smith said.

But townspeople say what ultimately might pull Graniteville through the fight is its sense of community.

"I have a lot of customers who play the lottery," said Linda Cooper, who lives in Graniteville and works at the El Cheapo convenience store near the center of town. "They say if they hit the lottery, they're going to put it back into Graniteville."

The town, Ms. Cooper and others say, is the sort of place where people still pull over to help stranded motorists, where neighbors still call each other by first names.

It's not surprising that they're looking for signs of hope. They point out that Mr. Wyatt and his partners are building thousands of houses near the town, a new Wal-Mart is coming just miles away in Aiken, and the school district is erecting a new elementary school for Graniteville children.

"I think we're coping," said Steve Henricks, the senior pastor at Graniteville First Baptist Church. "Even though some of these things are very difficult, I see positive signs of growth in the community all around us."

Mills have closed in Clearwater and Bath, and those towns have gone on, though they've struggled to flourish.

And Graniteville's own fight hasn't reached the last round.

The inactive mills around which the town sprung more than 100 years ago are reminders of the uphill battle. So are the people who lost their jobs and say they are too old to start over.

Even optimists such as Mr. Silas, the Chick-N-Snack owner, acknowledge that there's work left to be done.

"Graniteville is going to change drastically, I think for the better," he said. "But anybody who says their business isn't off a little bit isn't being entirely truthful."

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.