Coping with the R word

Savannahians share tales of how they’ve dealt with the downturn; some of their stories may surprise you

MEASURING tape around her neck, Diana Smock sits at a sewing machine, presses a switch and makes it hum.

From her cozy Wilmington Island shop, Smock upholsters furniture, makes pillows, alters hems and repairs clothing. But as the recession deepens, most of the work at Diana’s Alterations and Canvas Work has been repairs.

“People don’t like to buy anything new,” Smock says matter-of-factly. “Instead, people are bringing in the old stuff for me to work on.”

And, starting work as early as 6:30 a.m. and ending at 7 p.m. Smock has mended ripped pants legs and threadbare shirts. She’s put patches on jeans.

And when one mother purchased all her children’s school clothes at Good Will, Smock made repairs.

As Smock has keep busy, she’s also done something that has become increasingly difficult in Savannah in the last year: She posted a profit.

As a recession swept Savannah, Smock discovered that the downturn has brought her additional work. But others in Savannah haven’t been so lucky. Around the city, firms have trimmed projects, laid off workers and sometimes closed their doors.

In November, Great Dane Trailers announced it would shut down its Savannah plant, leaving about 270 people out of work..

At the Port of Savannah, container traffic fell 9.3 per cent in December, and officials announced a hiring freeze.

And at the heavy equipment manager JCB, officials announced they would cut 220 jobs at their plant in Pooler.

Smaller firms fell by the wayside, too. On Wilmington Island last week, an upscale restaurant called Barbara Jean’s closed its doors for good.

Only a year ago, this was a popular restaurant. Diners came her for good food — especially the delectable crab cakes. And when they waited half an hour for a table, they rarely complained.

But by midweek, the restaurant doors were locked, and staffers posted a notice for patrons and friends. Blaming the economy, “we are with heavy hearts having to close,” they wrote.

These days, many people around Savannah, people share those “heavy hearts.” Here are some of their stories.

In the state’s career center on White Bluff Road, Aldora Gamble’s face is grim as she studies a list of jobs.

She hasn’t found anything yet, Gamble says. But she has to keep looking “because on Jan. 9, they eliminated my job.”

For more than 18 years, Gamble has held manufacturing jobs here and in Los Angeles. At her last job in Savannah, she said, she earned $35,000 a year.

She’d also earned her share of credentials, Gamble says — an associates’ degree in design marketing, a bachelor’s degree in home economics and computer skills in PowerPoint, Access and Paint.

But none of that helped her keep her job. In early January, “they called me in and just let me know that my job was over,” she says.

As she looks for work, Gamble mentions other concerns. Her husband is 100 percent disabled. And her transportation is difficult; Gamble shares a car with her daughter. She isn’t sure how she is going to support her family, Gamble says, adding “It’s getting scary.”

Still, she believes her faith will help her. “Just like the Lord gave me a job, he’ll give me another one,” Gamble says.

At the Georgia Department of Labor’s Savannah Career Center, manager Larry Yaughn ticks off a list of resources:

Free FAX service, free computers, free copying machines, free practice interviews plus an effort to match job seekers with employers who have jobs.

His office also works with people who already have a job but want to move up, Yaughn says.

A tall man with an easy smile, Yaughn mentions something else that can help the jobless workers who fill his center every day.

“We comfort job seekers,” Yaughn says. “We really try to encourage them and give them hope.”

But helping them hasn’t been easy. In December, metropolitan Savannah’s jobless rate rose to 6.6 percent for December, the state labor department reported. Since last year, some 3,000 jobs in the Savannah region have been lost. And now, about 1,400 people a week fill Yaughn’s White Bluff center looking for work.

Still, Yaughn stays upbeat. And he has a message for his unemployed workers:

“Stay diligent” in their job search, he says. “Don’t give up.”

As the economy took a turn for the worse, shop owner John McCollister made a decision.

“I quit watching the news,” he says. “All the bad news got to me.”

At their Waters Avenue store, Trends & Traditions, McCollister and his wife Kathy sell elegant picture frames, candles and original art.

Last year, sales fell by about 10 percent. But the McCollisters are convinced that staying positive can help boost their business.

“You got to keep a good attitude,” John McCollister says. “Your attitude affects a lot of customers. If you feel negative, you might come across to customers as a little negative.”

Working without an advertising agency, McCollister has tried hard to promote his merchandise. And he’s hopeful 2009 will be a better year. With a new president, “it definitely looks more optimistic” McCollister says.

Besides, though sales fell last year, their store still managed to add 300 names to their customer list.

In early January, 25-year-old hairdresser Kai Moser took a gamble.

Even though the jobless rate was rising, she decided to quit her job and find a better one.

“It was a hard decision,” she says. “It was scary.” But at her old salon, there weren’t enough new customers; she often found herself standing around, with nothing to do.

Once Moser left her old job, she began visiting other salons. She also telephoned her old customers and found 30 who pledged to follow her to a new salon.

As her job hunt continued, “a bunch of these clients came to my house” for haircuts or other services, she says, “or I would go to their homes.”

Moser’s unemployment lasted just two weeks.

On Jan. 19, she started working at a The HairPort. Moser believes the nature of her work made it relatively easy to find a job. “Everyone needs to get their hair done,” she says.

Laid off in October, construction manager Michael Bran’s life has changed. Instead of buying steak or chicken, the 32-year-old Bran now lives on macaroni and cheese — or hot dogs.

His income has dropped from more than $1,000 a week to $330 now.

And though he’s searched for work from Charlotte to Atlanta, he still hasn’t found a job.

“It’s bad now, really bad,” Bran says. “All I do is cut back. And cut back again.”

Concerned that his comments to a newspaper would make it even harder to find work, Bran gives a fictitious last name. But if job-hunting is hard, depressing work, Bran hasn’t given up. On a winter day, he’s visiting the state’s career center for the first time.

He hopes those officials will help him, Bran says; but in the end, he believes the responsibility for finding a job rests with him.

“You really have to get out there,” Bran says. “You have to keep looking.”

Then he turns toward one of the career center’s computers and, pounding the keyboard, Bran returns to the work of seeking a job. cs

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