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Recession hits hard for cities, businesses in White County

POSTED: February 26, 2009 12:35 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Family Dodge-Chrysler-Jeep dealership in Cleveland closed its doors Feb. 17 after 10 years of operation at its U.S. 129 location.

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When the economy takes a nosedive and people are afraid to spend money on anything that’s not essential, it’s bad news for a town whose existence depends on tourism.

The recession is hurting local governments everywhere, but the Bavarian-themed town of Helen has been hit especially hard. Last week, plummeting revenues forced the Helen City Commission to cut seven jobs from the payroll.

"If we have to cut any more, it would just about cripple the city’s ability to provide services at the level people expect," said Helen city Manager Jerry Elkins.

Helen’s general fund budget for the fiscal year that ends in June was supposed to be about $2.3 million. But revenues for the period are estimated to be only about $1.9 million.

"Everything is down," said Elkins. "Property tax (revenue) will be down by an estimated $25,000, hotel-motel tax down $25,000, sales tax $90,000, building permits $30,000, and police fines $30,000."

The city already had taken steps to reduce spending. Overtime has been banned, some equipment purchases were deferred, and employees will have to take an unpaid furlough day once a month.

But those measures weren’t enough. Though Elkins called it one of the most difficult decisions he’s ever had to make, he felt he had no choice but to eliminate jobs.

"We evaluated each department and cut positions that we felt would have the least impact on the day-to-day operation of the city," he said.

Three employees were laid off from the police department, though only one was a patrol officer. The other two were dispatchers.

Elkins said the remaining two dispatchers will be scheduled during the busiest time of the day. During off hours, calls to the Helen department will roll over to White County’s dispatch center.

Three public works employees also have been laid off, and the city might look a little less tidy as a result.

"These workers did all kinds of maintenance, whatever needed to be done, whether it was picking up trash or fixing things," said Elkins.

The loss of these jobs won’t be noticeable during the winter, when visitor traffic in Helen is slow even during good economic times. But those police and public works employees will be missed during big events, such as Helen’s Oktoberfest.

"Helen (as a tourist town) has a problem other cities don’t have," Elkins said. "We may have very few people here one day and thousands the next. It’s really hard to have the right level of staffing when you have these wide fluctuations in the population."

The city also has eliminated the position of the building and zoning director. Some of that person’s duties have been assigned to Helen Police Chief Ted Ray, who has previous experience working in that field.

Helen officials have contracted with White County government to perform building inspections within the city, but there’s little demand for that service right now. "Hardly anyone is building anything these days," said Elkins.

He said he doesn’t know what Helen will do if the economy keeps getting worse.

"It’s tough when your economy is based entirely on tourism," Elkins said. "Our city is not conducive to any kind of industrial development. Until things get better, we’ve got to find a way to keep going. We’ll continue to focus on tourism and promoting the city."

White County as a whole is faring better than Helen, because its economy is more diversified. But county clerk Jean Welborn said they’re feeling the squeeze.

"Back in the fall, the county put a hiring freeze on any positions except public safety, but we haven’t had to cut jobs or do furloughs yet," she said.

Welborn said the county recently advertised for an animal control officer. "Usually we would only get two or three applications for a position like that," she said. "This time, we were just flooded with applications from people who would never have considered a job like that before. They’re willing to take anything."

Welborn said people who work in construction-related businesses are particularly desperate because the market for new homes has dried up.

Businesses that sell things people have to buy, such as groceries, are doing relatively well. But those designed to fulfill a want rather than a need, such as souvenir shops, are struggling.

"People aren’t spending as much as they normally do (in Helen)," said Elkins. "We still get visitors, but they’re not buying anything in the shops."

Several White County businesses have closed in recent months, including the Black Bear Resort near Helen and an RV dealership just north of the Hall County line.

But the latest closure came as a shock to just about everyone. On Feb. 10, Family Dodge Chrysler Jeep, one of several car dealerships on U.S. 129 south of Cleveland, abruptly shut down. Customers and employees came in that morning to find the doors locked and no explanation offered.

Initially, the dealership’s answering machine had a message saying, "We are currently closed ... please visit when we reopen." But by last week, that message was gone, and all the new cars were removed from the lot.

Bill Echols, owner of Family Dodge, has been unavailable for comment.

Dennis Greene, co-owner of Jacky Jones Ford next door, is a friend of Echols and sold him the land for the Dodge dealership. But even Greene said he had no clue that the business was going to close.

"I’m just guessing, but they may have suddenly found they couldn’t get credit," he said.

The dealership had about 20 employees who’ve been left in limbo. "I feel bad about those people who lost their jobs," said Greene. "They were very reputable, very good folks to do business with."

Greene said for car dealerships in rural areas, attracting customers can be a challenge. U.S. 129 doesn’t get nearly as much traffic as Gainesville’s "automotive alley," Browns Bridge Road.

Greene said more potential buyers come during the busy tourist seasons of summer and fall, when thousands of travelers pass by the dealerships on their way to the mountains.

But fewer tourists means fewer customers. "We didn’t get the extra summer business last year that we usually have," Greene said. "There’s just not as many people coming."



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