ALBANY, Ga. -- Uma Patel doesn't pause to ponder the question. Clearly this is something she's been thinking about for some time.
"There's a tremendous difference in our business now," the owner/manager of the Citgo Quik Mart says. "There were three shift changes over there every day, between 2,000 and 3,000 workers. Now there are none."
"Over there" is the all but vacant former Cooper Tire plant, directly across U.S. Highway 82 at 3300 Sylvester Road. The once bustling 2.2 million-square-foot factory, alive for two decades with the comings and goings of some 1,400 employees and an endless procession of haulers and venders, has taken on the appearance of a self-contained ghost town, eerie in its inactivity.
When Cooper officials announced in December 2008 the company's plans to close the plant, feelings of barely-contained despair settled over an Albany and Dougherty County population still trying to recover from the closure of the Bobs Candies plant in 2005 and the Merck Chemical plant less than a year later.
The Bobs and Merck shutdowns cost the region more than 600 jobs and yearly economic losses totalling almost $80 million. Cooper would double that.
"You can't overstate the impact Cooper's announcement had on this community and this entire region," Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard said. "It wasn't just the economics either; this took a physical and mental toll as well.
"We had no choice but to cope. We had to adapt to this new world we live in."
THE NEW WORLD
That new world included a sudden and dramatic increase in the region's unemployment rate. Economists said at the time multipliers that take into account losses of jobs outside of but directly tied to the plant would surpass 2,500, one of every 25 jobs in the metro area. With the job losses came sharp declines in sales at local retail outlets, a sudden flood in the local housing market and what former Albany State University economics professor Abiodun Ojemakinde calls "the erosion of the local tax base."
"A closure of this magnitude impacts every sector of the economy," Ojemakinde, now vice president in ASU's Office for Academic Affairs, said. "Obviously, you have less employment, but you also have to consider the kinds of jobs that were lost. There were lots of highly-trained and skilled technical employees and mid- and lower-level management personnel who owned homes and were an important part of the region's consumer base.
"These are the kinds of people who possess skills that companies value. Many of these employees were able to find similar jobs with other communities, and since they are typically more mobile, they were able to relocate. Many of the other employees, though, may have started work at Cooper right out of high school and had only skills that applied to their job at the plant. It's more difficult for them to find comparable work."
In lieu of property taxes based on the county's digest, Cooper worked out an agreement with the Albany-Dougherty Payroll Development Authority to pay a flat fee based on employment figures. That fee was $125,000 through 2008 and $126,750 in 2009. After the last workers left the plant in April 2009, the PDA terminated its agreement with Cooper and the company paid $147,657.90 in real estate taxes for 2010.
"When the original agreement was made, inventory was exempt from ad valorem taxes, but spare parts and supplies were not part of the agreement," Dougherty County Tax Commissioner Denver Hooten said. "As you can see (from statistics provided), the taxes they paid went up considerably after the agreement with the PDA was terminated."
Indeed, Cooper's taxes on parts and supplies ranged from $79,468 in 2001 to $110,059 in 2009. Without the agreement, the company paid $691,550 in personal property taxes in 2010.
"That final amount includes the property, buildings, equipment, machinery, furniture, supplies ... everything but exempt freeport items," Hooten said. "And, remember, they'd already moved a lot of stuff to their other plants.
"From a tax standpoint, the loss of Cooper didn't have as significant an impact on ad valorem taxes as the loss of jobs had on the overall economy of the region."
That loss was not, however, confined to economic factors.
"Certainly the loss of every job is a big deal to us and to the community," Barbara Rivera Holmes, the director of marketing for the Albany-Dougherty Economic Development Commission, said. "But coming so soon after the losses of the Bobs Candies and Merck plants, there was an emotional element to the Cooper closure.
"This further crippled the community's self-esteem. And it's very difficult to promote a place that doesn't believe in itself."
Ojemakinde agrees, noting that the psychological impact of Cooper's move is in some ways as damaging as the hit to the local economy.
"Everyone's focused on the economy, and that's understandable," he said. "But I'm not so sure we've done enough to deal with the psychological impact. We have agencies available in the community, but I don't know that enough has been done to reach out to these employees who went through such a traumatic experience.
"Also, one of the offshoots no one has really talked about is the increase in crime. That's a very real part of the economic downturn."
At the start of 2008, the unemployment rate in Dougherty County was at 5.8 percent, according to statistics provided by the Georgia Department of Labor. The rate had increased to 7.5 percent by the time Cooper announced it was closing its facility in the community. By February 2009, unemployment had risen to 8.4 percent, and the rate gradually increased: to 10.2 percent by July and to 10.7 percent by the end of the year.
The rate climbed to 11.5 percent at the start of 2010 and remained near that level for most of the year. Initial claims for unemployment benefits reached a staggering 23.1 percent in the metro area's manufacturing sector shortly after the Cooper announcement, and the number of workers employed dropped by more than 3,000 from the start of 2008 to the end of 2010.
"In general, the effect a plant closing has on an area's economy depends on a couple of things: the size of the geographic area and the size of the work force," Sam Hall, the director of communications for the state Department of Labor, said. "Obviously, a smaller work force is going to be more impacted than a large metropolitan area.
"The recession that kicked in around the time the Cooper plant closed impacted (Southwest Georgia), and of course there were the other plants that had shut down previously. All of those factors made it tougher to find work in that region."
NEW WAY OF THINKING
According to Sinyard and to EDC Director Ted Clem, the recession that rocked the entire country may have softened the blow of the Cooper closing for Albany, Dougherty County and Southwest Georgia.
"Even if Cooper had stayed in Albany, I don't believe in the economy that followed that they would have kept on all their employees," Sinyard said. "We as a community had to adapt to the loss of this plant and its jobs, but because of the recession we all were forced to look at our whole economy differently.
"I think we developed a resiliency that's allowed us to get past this and move forward. It's made our citizens understand that education is no longer optional, it's a necessity. In that regard we're fortunate to have three outstanding institutions of higher education: Albany State University, Darton College and Albany Technical College."
Clem, who came on board as EDC director shortly after the Cooper announcement, said the rash of manufacturing losses helped spur a number of local incentive programs that made the region more attractive to businesses.
"The first thing that needed to be done was to make the community more competitive when it came to attracting business," he said. "We started incentive programs like our military and opportunity zones and we upgraded our industrial park to show we were serious about being business-friendly.
"It's easy to blame Cooper for taking the jobs away from Albany, but the bottom line is the state of Mississippi was able to bring more (incentives) to the table than we were. Looking at this in hindsight, though, I can't think of anything we could have done here that we didn't do to try and keep Cooper."
A number of messages left with Cooper's Findlay, Ohio-based media offices seeking comment on this story were not returned.
WOUNDS STILL FRESH
The economic and emotional pain that Cooper left in its wake when it decided to pull up stakes in Albany has abated. But the wounds are still fresh. The question the region now faces is how it will treat those wounds ... and how ugly the scars it leaves behind will be.
"Our business was impacted considerably when Cooper left," Todd Griffin, the operations manager of shipping firm Southern Ag Carriers in Albany, said. "There was a large drop-off when they first shut down.
But it wasn't like we woke up one morning and found out Cooper Tire was closed. We had nearly a year to prepare, and we used that time to aggressively find clients to fill the void.
"We're fortunate that we're so diversified and were able to adjust. But that's what you do if you want to survive in this business."
Holmes said the fallout from the Bobs, Merck and Cooper closures forced the EDC and local officials to focus more on retention and expansion of existing businesses in the community.
"I think the Cooper announcement reinforced the need for us, for our elected officials, for the city, the county, Water, Gas & Light, Albany State, Darton, Albany Tech -- everyone who has a stake in this community -- to take a closer look at our existing industries and businesses to make sure they have what they need," she said.
"New is sexy, but it's perhaps more important to sit down with our existing partners, develop stronger relationships and work with them to find ways to assist them in what they do. Doing that's going to make us a stronger community."
Clem said the former Cooper facility has drawn "a lot of interest" from businesses and investors since the tiremaker's last employees left the building for good in April 2009. The size and design of the building, though, limit the prospects that could retrofit their business there.
Local citizens only hope a new tenant will be found soon. They know the economy could use the jolt that a major new employer would bring. But they also want to erase the specter of the Cooper experience.
A woman who would only identify herself as Janelle said two of her relatives were among the 103 Moultrie workers who were employed by Cooper when it announced its closing.
"I know this is America, and in America businesses have the right to operate the way they think is best," she said. "But the Cooper Tire folks did their workers wrong. And I can guarantee you I will never buy another Cooper tire as long as I'm alive."