COMMENTARY | During the Great Recession, the Dalton, Georgia, area was hit hard. Earlier this month, the American Community Survey released its data on median U.S. household income. And Dalton, a city of nearly 150,000, made the bottom 10 in America at $32,858.
But then again, this Northwest Georgia town has had a history being stuck in tough circumstances, only to bounce back. Will this time be different?
Is Northwest Georgia Cursed?
Ever since the Creeks were driven from the territory after the Battle of Slaughter Gap, they seemed to put a curse on the place. The Cherokees, who chased out the Creeks, were driven from the region themselves during the Trail of Tears in a form of ethnic cleansing. The city was the site of several Civil War battles, locomotive chases, and occupation.
Dalton sought to capitalize on the growth of the home-building boom, as it advertised itself as the “Carpet Capital of the World.” Yet in recent years, the place had to weather free trade deals with foreign countries and the decision of some in the textile industry to relocate where labor was cheaper or face tougher competition from low-cost rivals.
But that was nothing compared to the Great Recession, which nearly quadrupled unemployment from 3.3 percent to 12.3 percent in just a few short years, much higher than the national average. What caused such a calamity?
“Dalton got nailed hard by the housing bubble,” said Jamie Jones, editor of Dalton Magazine and co-city editor of The Dalton Daily Citizen, in an interview. “New homes weren’t being built, and those already built weren’t remodeling. Businesses held off on purchases. There were a lot of job losses and belt tightening.”
Defining the City of Dalton Makes a Difference
That staggering unemployment rate certainly seemed to exert some downward pressure on Dalton’s median household income. But sometimes, numbers can be misleading.
“Dalton’s rank is a misnomer,” said Dalton Mayor David Pennington in an interview. “The MSA [Metropolitan Statistical Area] includes Whitfield and Murray County. If you take just the city limits of Dalton, our median household income is $46,000, which is right about the state average.”
So why are Murray County and the surrounding countryside reeling? “Dalton is right on I-75, as are many of the carpet companies and other businesses,” Jones explained. “Murray is further from the interstate.”
Is there any hope for a recovery? “There was a lot of optimism when Volkswagen located a plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee,” Jones added. “But satellite businesses have not materialized so far.”
The Region Hopes for a Rebound
But despite the previous woes for the Dalton MSA, is there reason for optimism in the future?
“I came into office just as we were going over a cliff,” Pennington remarked. “But the carpet industry is beginning to recover, and that’s going to drive this local economy. Shaw Industries and Mohawk and other carpet companies are building up around here.”
As further evidence of this, Pennington pointed to power data, not just income numbers. “Georgia Power said it won’t be back to pre-recession numbers until 2020, and TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] says it won’t be back to pre-2008 numbers until 2025. But Dalton Utilities says it will be back to pre-recession numbers by 2014, thanks to increased usage at carpet companies.”
Is it just a matter of flipping back on the power switch and building more carpets? “We also reduced the size of city government and cut taxes,” Pennington replied, explaining how he was reelected in the midst of tough economic times.
Next year, Pennington hopes to challenge Gov. Nathan Deal on a platform of reducing taxes and the state’s unemployment rate, one of the highest in the Southeast. It may seem like a long-shot bid, but so did Dalton’s economic recovery until the last year or so.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.