The small town of St. Marys, Georgia, differs from the other places we have visited in the basic structure of its economy. When we first went there in the 1970s, it was still what it had been for many decades: a company town, in the good and (mostly) bad senses of that term. Now it is a variant of the same thing, and that is the circumstance the city and county officials are trying to change.
The good of the old company-town arrangement was that the giant mill of the Gilman Paper Company provided paychecks for the overwhelming majority of families in the area. Indeed, the air and water pollution was so heavy, and the location was so remote, that a job with Gilman was the most obvious reason anyone would choose to live there. And not to belabor the bad -- if you want belaboring, check out this previous post -- but in addition to the normal distortions of a town all-dependent on one company and the people who ran it, the company badly abused its power in environmental and political ways, including hiring a hit man in a failed attempt to eliminate a local critic -- that critic being a man who became our friend, Wyman Westberry.
That was then. Largely through mismanagement and the side effects of family squabbles, Gilman went through a long decline. You can read some of the details in this Forbes account, but overall it was a depressing personal and business saga. (Some other, better run plants still operate in the vicinity -- you can just glimpse them in the distance in this shot below, from the former Gilman property across the wetlands toward the coast.) Gilman had been the largest privately owned paper mill in America, but 15 years ago the family sold it to a Mexican firm, and not long afterwards that firm closed the mill, eliminating some 900 jobs.
In 2007, the remains of the mill were blown up, despite some local efforts to retain and reuse them as startup sites, light-industrial buildings, or even monuments. That left what is now a rubble-filled "brownfield" between the city's historic downtown and the coastal marsh. Here is a video of the demolition (in the last few minutes of the clip), with others here and here.
Part of today's post-demolition Gilman ruins:
The good news for St. Marys and surrounding Camden County was that another mammoth employer had arrived even before Gilman went down. That was the US Navy. During the administration of the former submarine officer and former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, and with Georgia Senators Sam Nunn and Herman Talmadge then big powers on Capitol Hill, the U.S. Navy decided that Kings Bay, immediately north of St. Marys, would be the East Coast home of America's nuclear-submarine fleet. (The West Coast home is near Seattle.)
That big news of January, 1978, is memorialized in a front page shown in the local Submarine Museum (at right). Everything about the city was changed by the Navy's arrival. In Gilman's heyday, its manager had claimed that 75 percent of the people in the county owed their living directly to the mill. A few weeks ago in St. Marys, local officials told us that perhaps 70 percent of the regional economy was now related to the base -- a figure that includes rental housing, retail, construction, and the other spillover effects of growth itself.
I'll save for an upcoming installment some of the social, cultural, and political effects of a large military presence in a small Southern town like this. For the moment, the point is the part of the local economy that did not change, which was the outsized importance of a single big-gorilla economic engine.
Gilman Paper Company, the previous gorilla, had been "local" but not in a good way. The local managers behaved as mini-tyrants (if you don't believe me, believe the state and federal prosecutors who went after them), and the owners lived in New York City and seemed to view the mill mostly as a hinterland source of wealth. Their ongoing source of local investment was a resort plantation where artists and ballet figures, notably including Baryshnikov, vacationed and trained.
The U.S. Navy, the current gorilla, is by all accounts faultlessly well-behaved and good-citizen-like in its local relations. The submarine officers and seamen are an elite within the military -- older, better educated, and more carefully selected than the norm, and not any source of trouble in town. But by definition a military presence is transient -- and while some Navy officials come back to the area after retirement, the Navy represents an economic power that is in but not of the town. Much of the growth it has induced as been "just" growth -- malls, restaurants, fast food, etc on the fringes of town. (This ingenious "swipe map," by our John Tierney and David Asbury of Esri, lets you compare the 1990 and 2010 land-use patterns, given a sense of the strip-mall development around the Navy base and an I-95 exist.)
We were struck by how different this single-source dependance was from other places we have seen. Sioux Falls has a big financial-services industry -- but also is a major retail and medical center, and has universities, and has growing high-tech sector, to say nothing of its huge agricultural businesses. Greenville used to be textile-dependent but now has automotive and other manufacturers, plus finance and services, plus a vibrant downtown, plus tourism and universities etc. Eastport is scrambling to create more of everything but is not reliant on any one thing. With variations, the resilience-through-diversification saga is also true of Redlands, Burlington, Holland, Rapid City, Winters (about which more soon), and other places we have seen.