Unemployment numbers do not reach 1980 figuresPublished 12:00am Sunday, January 24, 2010
NATCHEZ — Unemployment is a problem in Adams County, but it’s certainly not the worst of times.
With 9.8 percent of county residents without a job during June and July of 2009, last summer ushered in the county’s highest unemployment rating since October 2005’s 12.2 percent unemployment rate.
But based on the Mississippi Department of Employment Security’s statistics, unemployment has been much higher for the county in decades past, especially the 1980s.
According to local businessmen and city and county officials, it only took drops in one form of business to bring unemployment rates up — oil.
During the early ’80s, Adams County saw a steady rise in unemployment
The county’s unemployment annual average was 8.1 percent in 1980, rising to 9.4 percent in 1981, 11.3 percent in 1982 and 14.3 percent in 1983.
Unemployment rates dropped in the final years of the ’80s with the county finishing out the decade in 1989 with an unemployment annual average of 8.9.
“The oilfield business really hurt Adams County when oil went down (in the 1980s),” Supervisor Mike Lazarus said. “It was a trend that started in the early ’80s, and then it sank in until there was nothing left.”
Oil boom to oil bust
Preferred Transport Company’s operational manager Lewis Jones worked in the 1980s with Production Services, an oilfield service that worked on and supplied vacuum trucks to oilrigs.
According to Jones and Lazarus, life prior to and after 1986 was as different as night and day.
“During the oil boom it was grand. Just like the song said, ‘Those were the days my friend /We thought they’d never end.’ The economy (in Adams County) was extremely vibrant,” Jones said.
Lazarus said he remembers the days of oilmen, cowboy hats, fancy cars and oil wives with diamond rings on each finger.
However, for Jones, the good times ended in 1986 when the annual average for the county’s unemployment spiked to 16.4 percent.
“(In 1986) it was horrible. It was survival of the fittest,” Jones said.
While unemployment rates steadily rose in the 1980s, Jones said the change in oil costs happened rapidly and people lost everything within months.
“(In early 1986), the price of oil was in the low $30 a barrel, and that was extremely high in 1986. And then the price collapsed within a few months to $10 a barrel,” Jones said. “It caused a massive wave throughout the oil business.”
The unemployment rate in July 1986 rose to 18.2 percent — the highest it’s been in the past 40 years.
Jones said his company was one of the few to survive until it was sold in 1993, but for companies who also survived, sacrifices had to be made.
“For the ones who were still left, we made it through it,” Jones said.
“You had to adapt to where your market was, and you had to cut expenses all you could cut them. Our business was cut in half, and everyone took a pay cut.”
From bad to worse
According to former Natchez Mayor Tony Byrne, there were other contributing factors that made the 1980s employment scene less than promising.
Byrne said while the oil business dropped out of the county leaving many without jobs, International Paper was also cutting back on its number of employees and Armstrong Tire and Rubber was getting ready to throw in the towel.
“We were able to put a group together to save Armstrong,” Byrne said. “They stayed a little longer, but later (the business) went down.”
Byrne said it wasn’t just local businesses that were affecting unemployment rates — there were national side effects, too.
“Interest rates were at 22 percent on CDs,” Byrne said. “Interest rates were so sky high, you couldn’t get a bond.”
Lazarus said many businesses in Adams County, from big companies such as Halliburton to privately owned restaurants, felt the impact of oil businesses leaving the area.
While some businesses closed and let employees go, others worked hard to stabilize and keep their employees on staff.
Jones said the loss of the oil business ruined many lives through unemployment and financial loss, but others view the current recession with just as much alarm.
Bernie Pyron Furniture has been a fixture of Natchez’s private sector for 46 years, and owner Bernie Pyron said the present recession is hurting his business more than the ’80s.
“When the oil shut down, we still had International Paper, Armstrong (Tire and Rubber) and Johns Manville still operating,” Pyron said. “We still survived because we had those plants.
“That rocked along until about six years ago when IP went out. Armstrong went out with IP, and now we don’t have anything.”
Pyron said the loss of major businesses in the county in the early 2000s has continued to affect the state of his business.
“Business has been off all year. The national economy has caused some of it, and it seemed to hit here harder in June and July,” Pyron said. “Unemployment seemed to hit here in the middle of year.
“I love Natchez, but things are real bad business wise right now.”
Hope for the future
Businesses have suffered and become cautious, but Lazarus said he thinks the county is in better shape now than in the 1980s.
“This year, the overall national economy affected us a little, but people pulled back and got scared (of failing financially),” Lazarus said.
Lazarus said the apprehension felt by not just county residents, but all Americans, is hurting small businesses, which in turn cuts jobs out of the workforce.
“People are scared to spend any money right now, and it’s affecting the ones that need them to spend it,” Lazarus said.
Supervisor President Darryl Grennell said just the mention of economic trouble can affect a community negatively.
“Just the word ‘recession’ makes people hold on to their money,” Grennell said. “A lot of our retail businesses are normally affected as a result of these recessions.
“But I have not heard of any jewelry stores closing down, so we’re going to hold on, and (Adams County is) going to come back.”
In fact, unemployment rates have been on a decrease since July and sat at 8.6 percent when last reported in November.
“There have been tougher times for us in Natchez-Adams County than we are in today,” Grennell said. “We have great things on the horizon.”
According to Lazarus, county residents are handling this recession better than in previous years.
“People have adapted and done what they’ve had to do,” Lazarus said. “People have learned they can survive. And when business goes on the upswing again, it will be that much better.”
For Jones, the county is in a much more stable condition today than it was 30 years ago.
“Nothing compares to 1986 in my mind. (This recession) has been kind of an inconvenience compared to 1986,” Jones said.