3 counties' stress levels rank high

Union County's economic woes have been obvious this year. This week, its dire situation became even more apparent.

The county was named No. 19 on The Associated Press' index of the nation's top 20 most-stressed counties with populations over 25,000. Chester and Marion counties also appeared on the list at Nos. 18 and 17, respectively.

"I think they're lying," said Gus Soto, area director of the S.C. Employment Security Commission's Union County Workforce Center. "I'm surprised we're not higher. I think we had half of the town in here today."

The Associated Press' monthly analysis of economic stress in more than 3,100 U.S. counties showed the Southeast, the industrial Midwest and the Southwest were still struggling in September. The northern half of the nation is stabilizing or improving faster than the southern half. The AP's Economic Stress Index is based on a county's unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates.

One in five workers in Union is unemployed. The county's jobless rate has remained above 20 percent since March, and its September rate of 20.6 percent was the fourth highest in the state.

Soto said his office is swamped every day with people looking for work.

He said unemployment insurance benefit claims for about 1,500 people were handled last week, and the office stayed open until midnight Saturday to file more than 70 claims for extended benefits.

"This is as tough as I've ever seen it," Soto said. "We're trying to give these people a glimmer of hope, but it's not getting any better."

He said the county's job market has been slammed by layoffs at local textile mills. Its largest employers - Dollar General, Disney, BMW supplier LSP Automotive, Timken Co. and Kraft Foods in neighboring Newberry County - are only hiring for a small number of jobs at a time.

Local leaders have remained positive, working hard during the recession to reverse that trend and position the county for success once the national economy starts to recover.

Those efforts include the 80-acre Commerce Industrial Park off U.S. 176, which is home to LSP and Timken.

Several other sites across the county are in the process of being developed, with the ultimate goal of landing new industry.

A robotics training facility supported by Spartanburg Community College and the University of South Carolina Union is expected to open soon across from Commerce Industrial Park.

The county also is marketing the recently completed Union County Dragway, the seven-field Union County Sports Complex, the Big Buck off-road track, surrounding racing venues and other recreational activities, such as hunting and fishing, hoping to bring tourism dollars to the area.

"Union has been recognized as an economically depressed area for some time," said Torrance Inman, executive director of the Union County Chamber of Commerce. "We have been working with state leaders over the course of the last five to six years to generate large sums of money to put into projects that will help turn things around."

He said the local textile industry has shed about 2,500 jobs since 1994.

"Like almost every other community across the country, we're subject to the same trickle down of the national economy," Inman said. "We have not been sitting idly by. A concerted effort has been made. We've worked really hard to re-identify who we are during this recession, and we're not done yet. I think we're poised for good things when the economy starts to turn around."