For Siler City, change came with the chickens. In the last 20 years, two large poultry plants attracted immigrant workers who transformed the small Southern town.
When Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. and Townsend Inc. operated their poultry processing plants in Siler City, the labor intensive work necessary to keep the plants running created an opening in employment. Latinos filled the void.
When Pilgrim’s Pride and Townsend closed their Siler City operations in 2008 and 2011, Latinos felt the pain. So did the town as a whole.
According to Town Manager Joel Brower, Townsend’s water and sewer bill was about $1.5 million per year. Brower said Siler City’s budget has been hurt by the closures.
“We’ve really had to cut back,” Brower said. He cited water rate increases as one of the ways the town is compensating for the lost funds.
“There’s no denying the economic impact,” said Yvonne Stegenga, owner of Heartfriends Inn Bed and Breakfast in Siler City.
“There are not as many immigrants in Siler City because they go where they can find jobs, and if there are no jobs to be found they move on,” Stegenga said.
As residents tell it, Latino immigrants began coming to Siler City in the ‘80s. The big influx, however, occurred in the ‘90s.
Persons of Latino origin make up close to 50 percent of Siler City’s population, according to the 2010 census. The state average was 8.4 percent in 2010.
The Latino population growth spurred economic growth as well.
“It was a very good thing because Siler City economically was not in great shape at the time that this was happening,” said Dr. James Schwankl, a local pediatrician who opened his practice in town in 1976.
“Here was new life and new blood coming into the community and making requests of the merchants,” Schwankl said.
Brower also noticed the positive economic impact. “I saw a lot of the folks who had moved here buying into our system – finding employment, buying property, settling down, their kids entering the school system,” Brower said.
But with the plants gone, Latino spending power is down.
According to Orlando, a Latino worker at Lazar Industries in Siler City, the drop in the demographic is obvious. He said that the streets are less crowded and the stores have fewer customers.
Margarita Basilio, who works in a beauty salon downtown and attends community college in Pittsboro, said the salon’s business (which is predominately Latino males) dropped by about 20 percent when Townsend closed.
Although Basilio said business is beginning to improve, she did not attribute the uptick in customers to a spending power increase among Latinos in Siler City.
“They’re just starting to find new places to go work,” Basilio said. “Most of what we hear is that people are finding work in Burlington, High Point, Greensboro and Raleigh.”
Although town officials are happy that people are starting to find work, some hope Latinos will remain in Siler City even if their job is in a neighboring town.
“To me, the Hispanic population does all the hard jobs,” said Charles Johnson, mayor of Siler City. “They take the jobs a lot of people don’t want to do – the hands-on stuff.”
And according to Brower, there are and will be jobs to fill. “Hardly a week goes by that there’s not some interest expressed in one of our factories that’s vacant or land sites to build a factory,” Brower said.
In addition, Brower said there are a number of established companies that are growing.
Lazar Industries is one of those companies. Michael Buskirk, general manager at the modern upholstery business, said that although Lazar was affected by the recession, demand is increasing so they are hiring again.
Lazar also recently received a $182,000 grant from the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center that would help create 37 jobs.
About half of Lazar’s current employees are Latino, and Buskirk suggests many of the job openings will likely be filled by Latinos.
“There is no issue within our company with the Hispanic workforce, and you don’t find native people from Chatham County or Siler City that really want to be in the furniture business,” Buskirk said.
“So without the immigrant population, we would really struggle trying to build a workforce.”