When the news came that U.S. Sugar was selling 187,000 acres of farm land to the state and getting out of the sugar cane business, officials in Clewiston put on a brave face. They talked about the new industrial park on the outskirts of town that could bring new jobs and diversify the economy.
Hopeful talk. But when 1,700 jobs vanish from a rural town, a company town with less than 7,000 residents, the effect can be devastating. Like an epidemic sweeping through.
I've seen what happened to the agricultural town in the Mississippi Delta where I held my first newspaper job after so many of the farm jobs evaporated. Clarksdale, Ms., last time I saw it, looked as if a bomb had gone off. Stores were empty. Or had been taken over by low-rent enterprises. The once labor-intensive cotton and soy bean operations were automated. There was no longer a need for the farm workers who had sustained the local economy. And Clarksdale simply had little to offer its young.
Last year, I drove down through the coal fields in southern West Virginia. My old hometown of Pineville made Clarksdale, by comparison, look downright prosperous. Most of the local mines had played out. Those still operating were, like modern farming, highly automated. West Virginia, over all, was mining more coal than ever with one-tenth the work force. And coal towns, like farm towns, have too little to offer its young.
The educated leave. The local folks with the most gumption get out of town. The best kids move away to regional employment centers. The small towns struggle. Those left behind are disproportionately dependent on government services. Drug abuse inflicts a higher proportion of the residents. Crime, in towns where folks once bragged about never locking their doors, rises. Substitute crystal meth for crack cocaine, and the problems facing rural towns resemble those of the old inner cities: economic displacement, deteriorating structures, unemployment, drugs, despair.
Clewiston might have enough advantages to avoid a downfall. The Everglades restoration project, the source of the town's undoing, will bring jobs. And the 1925 planned community with wide boulevards, lined with royal palms, and with nice affordable homes, snug up against Lake Okeechobee, might attract refugees from the urban madness of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Or retirees from the north, if retirees still come to Florida.
There's hope. But the risk of a steep decline is as obvious as the empty streets of other once prosperous rural towns.