Millen, Georgia feels like a community on life support. Shuttered storefronts line Cotton Avenue. Signs of commerce appear elusive. Even the dust blows around in swirls as if it has nowhere to go.
"Way things are going, I believe it'll be a ghost town before long," Billie Nunnelee tells me from her perch behind the ice cream counter at K & K Antiques and Old Fashioned Soda Shop.
Millen has entered a critical phase of economic constriction. Most of the manufacturing plants that employed Jenkins County's industrial workforce of 1,025 closed down between late 2007 and early 2008. Over the past year, the ripple effect of that widespread loss of income has crippled commerce across the county of 8,000 residents, bringing about a second wave of closures affecting restaurants, a clothes store, a fitness center, a furniture store, and other businesses. Even the hospital has had to make drastic cutbacks.
Facing such a bleak economic landscape, many of the jobless have moved away in search of employment. There has not been a census to determine exact numbers choosing a Joad-like flight from Jenkins County, but local guesstimates range from a quarter to a third of the population. With loss of a significant percentage of their customer base, the remaining businesses in Millen are just barely holding on--often operating at a loss in hope things will get better soon.
The night before my visit, the owner of K & K had suggested to Billie that he might have to close down the shop. Last summer, business required three or four employees to serve all the customers on a hot afternoon. Now a funereal air hangs in the ice cream shop on a day when the mercury is pushing 100 F outside.
Billie has lived in Millen for 17 years, but is facing the prospect that she may have to move soon. "I'm raising two kids on my own. If they close, I have to move where the jobs are. That's not here."
A few doors away, Johnny Neal--the third-generation owner of Neal's Hardware--is determined his business will continue to endure. Opened in 1911 by his grandfather, Johnny believes a shop that survived the Great Depression, the turmoil of multiple wars, and the big box store invasion of the 1990s can keep going through this recession. God's blessings and the support of his loyal customers have kept Neal's Hardware going for nearly 100 years, he says, so he doesn't let a slowdown in business trouble him too much. The fact that he stopped reading newspapers when the United States invaded Iraq probably helps him maintain an optimistic view for the future. "I ignore the news because the more bad news I hear, the more I might believe it. So I try to focus on what I do and try to think positively."
Vera Williams relies on her faith in the grace of God to help her maintain hope for the future, though she faces the real prospect of having to close down her restaurant at the first of the year. What used to be a bustling industrial park across the street from Vera's Cafe now looks like a subdivision of sleeping giants caged in padlocked compounds of chain-linked fencing and barbed wire. Weeds have begun to sprout through cracks in the pavement as nature launches an offensive to reclaim the abandoned land for itself. The names on the signs--MI Windows and Doors, Capitol Architectural Products-- memorializes the industrial park as another victim of the devastated housing industry.