Job fair in Allendale draws thousands in need

Nearly 500 people in Allendale wait for room to open up in a conference center Wednesday for the Savannah River Site job fair.

ALLENDALE — Everybody expected to see a crowd. Few expected a swarm.

Savannah River Site organizers estimated 1,000 people would turn out for their federal stimulus money job fair Wednesday. Hundreds more were waiting when the doors opened.

Applicants filled the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie West conference center, took every one of nearly 500 seats under a canopy out on the lawn and then formed a good-sized crowd standing in the sun behind the canopy.

They sweated in the heat for work cleaning up nuclear waste. It didn't matter.

They need the jobs.

"I'd be concerned about it. But it wouldn't scare me off. Every little penny counts," said Chiquita Johnson, 24, of Allendale.

Tiny Allendale is the slag pit of the economic meltdown, one of the Savannah River communities that are among the most depressed in a state that has the third-highest jobless rate in the nation.

People here already were hurting when the job market collapsed. Allendale County now has the highest unemployment rate in the state, 22 percent. The town's main strip has a desolate feel in spots — fallen in old restaurants and businesses with patched roofs. It's so bad that one man who was greeted on Wednesday with a "How are you?" said "I'll be fine when I get out of Allendale."

The vast, aging SRS bomb-making complex 20 miles up the road used to be the economic lifeblood of the place. The $1.6 billion federal grant to clean it up will create an estimated 3,000 jobs, and nobody wanted to be left outside the gate.

The work might be dangerous. It's supposed to last only 30 months. No matter. The jobs will be one of the first real shots for South Carolina from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funds.

People drove down from Hampton, from Orangeburg. A recent University of South Carolina chemical engineering graduate drove from Columbia in a suit and tie. Others wore Harley-Davidson T-shirts and National Guard uniforms. A father and his son came from Augusta.

Sweating on the lawn in that sun, Ross Betts turned as a stranger walked up to him and asked, a little pleadingly, "Are you going to help me get a job?"

Betts, 53, also came from Augusta, where he moved in temporarily with his ex-wife after leaving his family home in Alabama. He had gone back home to work as a day laborer after losing his job as a housekeeping director in Chicago nine months ago.

He wasn't surprised at how many people he saw in front of him.

"There's a lot of people hungry," he said.

The Allendale job fair followed a job fair in nearby Barnwell where an overflow crowd of 2,300 showed up. It was the fourth of six in the Midlands sponsored by the U.S. Department Energy to fill the SRS jobs. It was the biggest thing to happen in Allendale in a long time. The odds weren't too good for the people in line, but far better than what they had.

"If we can get 300 jobs out of these 3,000, that will be enough to drop our jobless rate. We need it," Mayor Ronnie Jackson said.

"We want to make an impact on the place where we all work and live," said Veasey Wilson, vice president of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions.

On the hot lawn behind the canopy tent, the crowd kept growing, people standing and waiting for a chance to get a seat under the canopy to wait some more. Near the back of the crowd stood Daniel Terry, 53, of Hampton in denim, a ball cap and wrap-around shades. He'd been laid off his forklift job after 14 years. He's been out of work since March.

He didn't want a job cleaning up nuclear waste — he's done "plastic suit work" at the plant before. But he stood waiting.