Job opportunity reveals hope, eagerness in Allegany County

Resurgence: Hundreds seek work at a cabinet factory that may signal economic improvement, though not all the county needs.

September 26, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND - The textile factory closed in 1983, the tire plant in 1987. By the early 1990s, the glass company that once employed 1,300 moved its final 50 jobs out of town.

When word came recently that a cabinet manufacturer would bring 500 jobs to Allegany County, the biggest new opportunity in a generation, some residents didn't believe it until the steel skeleton of the plant began rising in a field where cattle once grazed in the shadow of the ever-present mountains.

Then the floodgates opened.

Eighty job seekers tracked down the recruitment telephone number for Winchester, Va.-based American Woodmark Corp. before it was advertised in the local newspaper two weeks ago. People keep showing up at the company's temporary office in Frostburg, a hush-hush location on a dead-end road.

By 10 a.m. the first day that the application system went online, 300-some candidates had filled out the forms - six times as many people as the number of jobs initially available. More than 1,000 people hoping to be supervisors have sent e-mail to the new plant manager.

Leaders in the Western Maryland county say this is a turning point, at long last: a sign that good jobs are coming back and a reason for the people who left in despair to do the same.

The frantic response to American Woodmark's modest arrival, however, also underlines the economic fragility of small-town America.

This county, 30 miles closer to Pittsburgh than to Baltimore, has long had more in common with the Appalachian region that cradles it than with the prosperous main trunk of Maryland. With a history rooted in coal mining, glass making and shipping, Allegany's situation is a familiar economic drama: an industrial community struggling to reinvent itself after manufacturing jobs have dried up.

The county's unemployment rate, while high for Maryland at 6.4 percent last month, is near the lowest it has been in a generation. But many of the jobs people now hold are answering call-center phones or running cash registers at Wal-Mart, or they require such lengthy commutes that people who love living here don't know whether they can stay.

For Kim Emerick, 46, the Woodmark cabinet factory might be his final hope. He gave up on $7-an-hour seasonal manufacturing work two years ago when odd jobs locally - mowing, painting - seemed more cost-effective than gassing up for two 50-mile trips a day. Nowadays his weekly wage varies from $100 to $225, depending on the weather.

That's not enough for a place of his own, especially because he owes child support for the younger of two daughters, so he lives with his widowed father in the countryside north of Cumberland.

American Woodmark offers the tantalizing possibility of stability. There's nothing that depresses him more than going to bed at night when he has nothing lined up to do the next day. He feels like less of a person, never mind the bills piling up.

"I'm just looking ... to be able to live a normal life," he said from his father's home. "I don't want to leave, but if I don't soon find something at my age to be able to take me through the rest of my life in a comfortable manner, I'll have to move."

Declining population

Allegany has had trouble hanging on to residents, the young especially. During the past 50 years, its population has consistently declined, a rarity in an otherwise fast-growing state. About 75,000 live in Allegany now, down from 90,000 in 1950.

The recent tough times are a stark contrast to the area's past. What began in 1750 as a trading post, Fort Cumberland, bloomed into a boomtown heralded as "the Gateway to the West." Its location on the Potomac River, next to a gap in the Allegheny Mountains, made it a natural spot for businesses and pit stop for travelers.

The first federally funded highway began here. The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal ends here. The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad passed through. In its heyday in the late 19th century, this was dubbed the "Queen City," the second-largest population center in the state and a place with titans of industry living in columned mansions.

In the 20th century, though, transportation advances passed it by.

Not until 1991 did an interstate highway cut through the county, the east-west Interstate 68; residents have been lobbying for years to get a north-south route. The small Greater Cumberland Regional Airport, which is just over the line in West Virginia, saw its last commercial flight a year ago, when Boston-Maine Airways left.

Allegany has made do with what it has. It's using its transportation heritage and the starkly beautiful mountains that isolate it as tourist magnets. It has managed to remain a job center of sorts, attracting 8,600 workers from other places, mostly Pennsylvania and West Virginia. And it has landed large call centers, a financial services firm and a few industrial companies in the past 15 years.

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