LANCASTER -- People in this sleepy old textile town don't need to read it in a magazine to know they are struggling. Still, when Forbes decided to name Lancaster the most vulnerable town of its size in America, a new kind of frustration took hold in a place that already has plenty.
"Most people were stunned, in all honesty," said Sylvia Hudson of See Lancaster, a nonprofit agency that promotes local festivals and attractions.
"They're out of their tree," said R.D. Howell, owner of an antiques store on Main Street.
"I'll bet whoever wrote that hasn't been here," said Stan Johnson, retired CEO of Kanawha Insurance Co.
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Beyond the initial feelings of anger, a larger debate seems to be simmering in this town a half-hour's drive southeast of Rock Hill. It pits those who believe Lancaster is being unfairly singled out against others who wonder whether the distinction was deserved.
"I've been telling people for the past year, we've been on life support," said 77-year-old Hazel Knight, owner of The Shoe Peddler in downtown Lancaster. "We lost our cotton mill -- that was the backbone of Lancaster County. We just don't have jobs that we need. It's just a real bad deal."
Looking for work
The one thing everyone agrees on is that the designation came as a surprise.
Forbes says it assembled the rankings as a way to probe the unfolding economic crisis, explaining: "Eventually, what's happened on Wall Street will find its way to Main Street, and some towns are more prepared to endure the challenges than others."
The article cites Lancaster's 12.2 percent unemployment rate, twice the national average. It also notes that 20 percent of residents live at or below the poverty line, compared to a national average of 13 percent.
Education was the third major factor: Only 18.6 percent of Lancaster's work force has an associate degree or higher, below the 25 percent average of other cities on the list.
Some are still figuring out how to deal with the "most vulnerable" label. Mayor Joe Shaw hung up the phone on a reporter this week, saying he's already made a statement to the press.
Shaw earlier told The Lancaster News that several companies want to come to his town, but the national credit crunch has hampered progress.
"It's not good to read those kinds of things in a magazine," he told the paper. "But we know what we need to do, and we're doing it. We're not sitting back. You just have to keep working at it."
Others take a similarly optimistic view, noting the relative health of Springs Memorial Hospital and USC-Lancaster, as well as the growing presence of Founders Federal Credit Union.
"Maybe they should've said that 10 years ago when the textile business was closing," said Johnson, the retired insurance man. "Vulnerable to me says it's going to get worse. And I don't see that."
The rise and fall of Springs
Regardless of where the county seat is headed, understanding how it got to this point starts and ends with one word: Springs.
In 1895, Leroy Springs and 83 stockholders founded the Lancaster Cotton Mill to capitalize on thriving Upstate cotton production and a railroad line that had arrived in the 1880s.
By 1939, Lancaster was home to the world's largest print-cloth mill.
Because steady work waited for them at Springs, people in Lancaster didn't have much reason to pursue college degrees or specialized job training. And the town didn't have much reason to recruit other employers.
That's why the collapse of the textile industry hit so hard. Like other mills across South Carolina, Springs gradually began to draw down production as jobs went overseas to Asia and South America, where cheap labor is plentiful. Today, all that's left of the print-cloth mill is a few empty buildings.
In a sense, the Forbes ranking has reopened wounds that never really healed.
Amid the despair, there are signs of hope: Earlier this month, Founders announced plans for a new corporate headquarters off S.C. 9 Bypass, with the investment estimated at $30 million.
Merchants in the downtown district are quick to point out that 10 new businesses have opened in the past year, bringing new life to empty storefronts.
Young people move away
But the greatest need in Lancaster remains unmet: jobs to replace the ones that vanished when Springs closed.
Young adults who grew up in Lancaster say they have little choice but to move away after high school. Neil Couch is one of the few who stayed. Couch landed a job at Founders.
His sister, Lindsay, moved to Boston to work in financial services. Many of Couch's friends also moved away.
"They can't find work (in Lancaster)," he said. "And when they do, they can't find a suitable salary. They don't want to sit around six or eight months waiting for somebody to call. They go where they can find work."
How Forbes compiled its list
Here's how Forbes described the rankings: "To evaluate the strength of Main Streets across America, we used August unemployment figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and 2007 Census data on median income, poverty, education and outstanding mortgage debt in 141 towns.
Called micropolitan areas by the Census, these towns have an urban core of at least 10,000 people, but no more than 50,000."
Others on the list
Shelby, N.C., Marion, Ind., and Palatka, Fla., joined Lancaster on the most vulnerable list.
The least vulnerable towns included Helena, Mont., Key West, Fla., and Seaford, Del., where unemployment rates are lower than 5 percent and median incomes are as high as $60,000.