Marengo unemployment dips to 6.6 percent

Published 10:45 pm Monday, October 20, 2008

The unemployment rate in Marengo County dropped slightly from its 7-percent peak in July, but remains at one of the highest levels this decade — a sign of the slowing economy.

Alabama’s unemployment rate rose to 5.3 percent in September, the highest it has been in four years, while Marengo County’s rate dropped slightly to 6.6 percent. This marks the county’s highest unemployment rate in September for nearly 10 years. There were 135 more workers unemployed than September 2007 when the unemployment rate was 4.7 percent.

“Even with this slight increase in the unemployment rate, Alabama’s economy remains strong due to the continued creation of jobs in our state,” said Tom Surtees, Alabama Department of Industrial Relations director.

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Dr. Howell Sheffield, an assistant professor in the College of Business at the University of West Ala-bama, said a lot of factors have contributed to the higher employment rates this year.

“We have seen a slowdown in the housing market, and agriculture has taken a hit — especially catfish farms, and industries such as trucking that have been hit hard by the higher cost of gas,” said Sheffield. “We are simply now experiencing the fallout of what has been happening in larger markets, and it is going to get worse before it gets better.”

And it will get better, Sheffield says.

“We have some industrial growth that bring new jobs into the area and help offset some of the losses,” he said.

A $1.553-million road project and new industries slated for the Demopolis Airport Industrial Park will bring new jobs in the area. U.S. Steel is investing $450 million for a new plant in neighboring Sumter County, which will eventually bring an estimated 235 jobs; and a new bio-fuel plant in Livingston is expected to bring additional jobs as well.

“Because the industrial gains this region is making, the Black Belt area should fair a little better than the rest of the state, and Alabama will end up fairing better the nation,” said Sheffield. “Our industry here is fairly strong with a lot of prospects for growth. Times will still be tough, but not as dramatic as what is expected in California and the northeast.”

One area Sheffield says will be hit hard, especially in the Black Belt, are catfish farms.

Most of Alabama’s catfish farms are in Marengo, Hale, Dallas, Greene, Perry, and Sumter counties. Rising prices for fuel, feed and electricity has stifled this once-booming industry, which is second in the nation next to Mississippi.

Farmers are getting 80 cents for a pound of fish that can cost as much as 90 cents to produce.

“We are seeing a realignment in this area from a dependence on agriculture to industry,” said Sheffield. “Agriculture will continue to take hit after hit, after hit.

Retail sales will also suffer as a result of the slowdown, Sheffield says. “This holiday selling season is expected to be terrible for retail stores,” he said “People will be more conservative this year with their spending due to the economic slowdown and credit market.”