BARNWELL -- The pecans Felisa Rice collected off the side of a country road lined with tall trees and open fields will buy her what her college degree hasn't: food, soap, electricity.
She quickly inspected the shells for cracks, tossed the damaged ones aside and slipped the others into a white plastic bag. Back in downtown Denmark, the pecans will sell for 85 or 95 cents a pound.
"We'll pick till we get tired," Rice said. "Sometimes you just got to do what you got to do, as long as it's legal. We can make 20-something dollars just lollygagging around."
In this rural corner of South Carolina, men and women, like Rice, wait to grab hold of one of the more than 600 jobs that Gov. Nikki Haley and state Commerce Secretary Bobby Hitt have promised the Barnwell region. The trouble is, months of struggle can pass between the time Columbia celebrates an economic development win and the day rural South Carolinians actually get a job and a paycheck.
Rice, who is in her early 30s, said she earned her bachelor's degree in business administration at Voorhees College and works in the cafeteria at Claflin University.
"Now that I have kids, it gets worrisome when it gets down to it and I don't know if I can keep my lights on," Rice said. "When we were growing up, we were struggling, but it's hard now to do anything, even keep a job."
Loss after loss
The region -- Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell and Hampton counties -- has been stung by an unrelenting double-digit unemployment rate that came with the loss of more than 1,200 jobs in the last several years. Among companies that closed doors were Hanesbrands Inc. with 319 jobs and Allied Air Enterprises with 350 jobs. Those losses are in addition to the estimated 1,370-plus jobs that are now gone at the Savannah River Site, known locally as the old bomb plant.
Sometimes Patrick Bradley wishes all of Denmark would get wiped off the map.
"They ain't got no jobs in this town and what they do have, you have to get two or three jobs to make it," Bradley said. He talked in between bites of a hamburger and fries at The Diner, about a seven-mile drive from Bamberg, the small town where the governor grew up.
Bradley works as a dishwasher at the diner, but it's just the latest way he's trying to make a living. Before this, he worked in the plant at the old Lifetime Door factory and pushed carts at the Piggly Wiggly.
Growing a middle class
Hitt, South Carolina's top job recruiter, said good jobs are coming and every last one of them will make a difference to one life or one family. People should feel the change on the ground in the next year, he said.
"It takes a little time," Hitt said. "I know that is not encouraging to people; I am not patient either."
Hitt said that he and the governor have a focus on recruiting companies to rural areas. Thirty-one of the state's 46 counties will get a share of the 19,000 new jobs announced in 2011.
Rob Godfrey, Haley's spokesman, said the governor is "going to continue fighting to bring jobs to every part of South Carolina and lift up those counties, like Barnwell, that have sometimes been overlooked."
That's one of the main goals, Hitt agreed. Bringing jobs to rural areas that improve the standard of living will mean more children going to college and more returning to the small towns where they grew up, he said.
That's part of what Kevin Bradley also has in mind. Bradley, a global entrepreneur, said he could have taken his business anywhere in the world, but decided instead to fill up the enormous Hanesbrands plant.
The plant, just out of eyesight from Barnwell's Norman Rockwell-like town center, has been vacant for about two years. Bradley, no relation to the man from Denmark, is waiting for his equipment to be shipped from Alexandria, Egypt, through the Charleston port to begin production. He hopes to be under way before March.
He will create 25 jobs with his company Sasco Safety, which makes highway safety products such as orange traffic cones. His company A&K Textiles, a safety clothing manufacturer, will create 120 jobs. An economic analysis shows that Bradley's companies will create another 62 jobs indirectly, through the economic boon.
Bradley also has plans for a one-of-a-kind shop to fill the rest of the plant, but the news is under wraps for now.
Bradley said he has several reasons for choosing Barnwell, including the distance from his commercial competitors up North, the weather, lower overhead and the state's right-to-work business climate.
"The United States is the biggest market in the world when you look at the spending power of the average American -- they buy," Bradley said. "People are sick and tired of buying from China and they're sick and tired of buying from Pakistan. The whole world is sick of it."
The lives in the balance
John Odom of Barnwell landed one of Bradley's jobs. He has worked in the building since 1993, surviving the last plant closure by moving to Barnwell County's payroll to maintain the building after Hanesbrands left. Bradley hired him to prepare the plant for its next life.
"Right now I have people calling me constantly, asking when we are going to open," Odom said.
Odom feels blessed, but he sees the pain the economy has caused in the lives of his friends and family, some of whom will run out of unemployment benefits any day now.
"They need a job," he said.
Up the road about a mile, Don Alexander, a local business owner who is expanding his company, unloaded bicycles and wrapped packages off his flatbed trailer. Inside the Light of the Lamb outreach center, the Barnwell County Rotary Club collects Christmas gifts for 597 local children, the second largest group the charity has taken on.
Alexander is a textile chemist and his company Anovotek is launching a spinoff called Edisto Outdoors that uses science to produce outdoor wear with sunscreen and anti-microbial elements.
As things look up for Alexander, another local businessman, Dennis Hutto, is suffering a heartbreak.
After nearly 23 years, Hutto will close his store, The Bookworm. He will stay open until Christmas and then shut his doors for good. Hutto has not decided what he will do with the original artwork still hanging on the walls and the shelves of office supplies that still fill the store.
Neon-colored paper signs scatter about the store: "All teacher supplies 75% off" and "Afghans and pillows 50% off." On the wall behind the cash register hang a decade's worth of business awards.
"If I've learned one thing out of all of this, I've learned humility," Hutto said. "I've learned to accept some of the things that I just can't do anything about. I wish that I could."
"The economy just broke our back," he said. "The people who say the economy is improving, they don't live in rural America."
"You can move people to a middle-class income and a lot of good things happen," Hitt said.Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855, follow her at twitter.com/yvonnewenger and read her Political Briefings blog at postandcourier.com/blogs.