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Mountain town struggles after devastating layoffs

  • Story Highlights
  • Spruce Pine, N.C., has lost 2,000 jobs in a county of about 15,600 residents
  • Some laid-off workers have retrained, only to lose their jobs again
  • Closed factory that employed thousands has become a food bank
  • Community leaders hope to revitalize economy by attracting tourists
By Sara Lane
CNN
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SPRUCE PINE, North Carolina (CNN) -- Like most parents, Vickie and Keith Murdock worry about providing for their family. With three teenage daughters, that can be a big challenge, but these days it's more difficult than ever.

The local food bank, Shepherd's Staff, is seeing three times as many needy clients as last year.

Keith and Vickie Murdock retrained for new jobs after suffering layoffs. But they remain unemployed.

Vickie and Keith are both out of work.

They live in Spruce Pine, North Carolina, a tiny mountain town about an hour's drive northeast of Asheville that has lost more than 2,000 jobs since 2003. That's a devastating number, given that Mitchell County's 2000 Census population was only 15,687.

Keith was laid off in 2001, when a textile mill closed. He had worked there for 13 years. He did what all the experts say to do: He went back to school, got his GED and retrained to be an auto body mechanic.

After graduation, he found a job at nearby Altec Industries. But again, he was laid off in January. Today, he spends his time looking for work.

Keith said "everybody you talk to" tells him, " 'well, we're not hiring. We ain't got nothing open right now.' "

Vickie has suffered her own layoff. She lost her job in 2006 when furniture maker Ethan Allen closed its plant in the area.

She decided to retrain and will graduate from the local community college in May as a certified medical assistant. Vickie hopes to get a job at a local clinic, but jobs are hard to come by in this area.

Major industries, including textile manufacturing, furniture making and mining, have downsized or left the area completely.

The Rev. Bill Sweetser works with Shepherd's Staff, a local food pantry.

He says workers there are seeing three times as many clients as they did just last year. Video Watch how the Murdocks have struggled against the bad economy »

The food bank is in an old textile mill that just a few years ago was one of the largest employers in Mitchell County. Now, former workers come there for assistance.

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"Right now, I would say we're barely keeping up," Sweetser said. "Our policy is that everybody who comes in will get something. Sometimes we're out of certain staples. ... It may not be the food you want to give them, it may not be the food they necessarily prefer, but we give them something."

Community leaders are hoping a focus on promoting mountain crafts and tourism and a growing second home market will spur an economic revitalization.

Keith Holtsclaw runs Blue Ridge Regional Hospital, one of the area's largest employers, and heads the county's economic development commission.

"I just don't see manufacturing coming back into the community," he said. "We have to work with what we've got. We have lots of artists here. We are great, we're on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we're on the Appalachian Trail ... so we need to play to our strengths."

Until that economic revitalization happens, Vickie and Keith Murdock are living off unemployment benefits and hoping to find work soon.

Vickie tries to calm her anxiety about the everyday costs of life.

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"We think that when we get to worrying how we are gonna pay for this," she said, "it's like the Lord makes a way."

For the Murdock family and this community, a new way to stimulate the local economy is desperately needed.

All About National EconomyLayoffs and DownsizingNorth Carolina

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