Marshall fifth in economic stress

Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Marshall County Tribune graphic by Dean Fox

When it comes to superlatives, Marshall County is near the top of a not-so-wonderful list.

The county was rated as the fifth most economically stressed county in Tennessee, according to an Associated Press study released earlier this week.

The county's 16.9 percent unemployment, 0.99 percent foreclosure rate and 1.77 percent bankruptcy rate give the county a stress level of 19.17, meaning almost 1 in 5 residents have been immediately affected by the recession.

"We're concerned about the people losing jobs," County Mayor Joe Boyd Liggett said when advised of the county's ranking by the AP analysis. "We're not taking it lightly."

One response is the Technology Fair from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Lewisburg Campus of the Columbia State Community College where seminars will be held on computers, hardware, software, the Internet, applications and "virtually every aspect of computer technology from those who know," according to an announcement from the Three-Star Technology Committee of theb local Joint Economic and Community Development Board.

Liggett cited a couple of reasons for the county's economic stress.

"A lot of our jobs have... gone off shore,"he said. "Nearly every industry in this county has been affected by that: Cosmolab, ICP and Sanford.

"And you don't see WalMart advertising 'Made in America' any more, probably because they can't find enough products made here to fill the store," he said.

Meanwhile, "Marshall County has such a high rate of industrial jobs," Liggett continued. "Through the years, we have realized as a community that's what we rely on for our economy."

Lewisburg Mayor Bob Phillips said as much in a separate interview.

"Our workers' skills are in manufacturing," Phillips said. "We need to upgrade our workforce."

When International Comfort Products stopped making air conditioning and heating units here, some 2,200 people lost their jobs. Nearly 900 of them were Marshall County residents and of those about 200 didn't have a high school education.

Many of those factory workers, and others like those facing job losses at the Sanford pencil plant here, were hired at age 16 and they thought they'd be taken care of for life and now it's hard to go back to school at age 55, The city mayor said.

ICP jobs were lost in McMinnville. Some of the work was picked up in Collierville, Tenn. and Tyler, Tex., as some of the other jobs reappeared in Mexico.

"There are some real challenges for the community with economic development," Phillips said. That includes increasing service industry jobs to reduce the local reliance on manufacturing as the lion's share of the economic base, he said.

Compared to Marshall County, only four Tennessee counties -- Perry, Lauderdale, Scott and Monroe -- have higher economic stress levels.

The information came from three sources:

>>> The unemployment data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which releases a monthly report on unemployment in every county in America. The rate is calculated by dividing the number of unemployed workers by the number of eligible workers in the county.

>>> The foreclosure rates track an inventory of all properties in various stages of foreclosure during a given month. These are collected by a private company, RealtyTrac, which compiles data for most U.S. counties.

Most of the counties that lack foreclosure data have very small populations -- in March 2009 they accounted for about 1.1 percent of the U.S. population -- and are heavily concentrated in midwestern states with low foreclosure rates.

For such counties that have less than 25,000 residents, the Stress Index is calculated with a foreclosure value of zero, in accordance with RealtyTrac's own methodology. The handful of counties with more than 25,000 residents that have no foreclosure data were not rated in the Stress Index.

>>> AP reporters compiled the bankruptcy data, almost 3 million filings from the 90 U.S. bankruptcy districts. They then tabulated the number of new bankruptcy filings in the current month with the 11 months previous and divided that figure by the number of IRS tax filings in the county. This annualized rate avoids seasonal gyrations in filings.

Mark Vitner, senior economist at Wachovia Corp., likened the economy to a car speeding along a foggy mountain road, approaching a sharp curve. The collapse of Lehman Brothers in September sent the car off the side of the road and through the guardrail. The freefall lasted months.

"We are now hitting the treetops," Vitner said, meaning the pace of the decline has now slowed.