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At 10-year mark since Great Recession began, memories of hardship linger in WNC
Ken Ashworth was hit hard by the economic calamity that was the Great Recession, the start of which now is more than 10 years in the rearview mirror. Angela Wilhelmfirstname.lastname@example.org
ASHEVILLE — Ken Ashworth leans back in his chair with arms folded and a stare fixated on a question. On this day, he says he's at peace. Sometimes, even happy.
But after nearly a decade of the worst hell he's ever known, that he's found anything resembling peace feels like something of a triumph to him.
Ashworth, like millions of others, was hit hard by the economic calamity that was the Great Recession, the start of which now is more than 10 years in the rearview mirror. He has a sad story, if not an entirely familiar one of the era, where the unemployment rate in North Carolina peaked north of 11 percent, more than double what's been recorded in much of the past three years.
In short order, the Transylvania County resident lost his job, his home and a livelihood he felt would carry him well into retirement. Still, his most significant loss wasn't zeros in a bank account.
It was Ginger.
"Her biggest fear was of being homeless," he said. "We were just barely making it on two incomes, you know? Going to two banks, doing odd jobs on the weekends. Just barely making it. I believe the prospect of financial ruin with me not being able to work tipped her over the balance."
The recession, which began in earnest in December 2007, saw a crash of the U.S. financial sector and is widely considered the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In the time until it ceased in 2009 with some effects lingering through 2012, foreclosure hit homes and businesses, development projects halted, unemployment rates skyrocketed and the world's investment and commercial banks were on the brink of collapse.
Its impacts were varied and sometimes severe in Western North Carolina and in just about every other corner of the country. A 2013 survey by Rutgers University found the recession impacted roughly one in every three people in the U.S.
Even as the era has come to a close — with some experts projecting a rosier future for the region, as job gains have long-since surpassed losses from the recession — memories of hardship still linger for Ashworth and others.
"It’s important we all take a step back and reflect and learn from some of the mistakes from the environment we had back then," said Trent Reed, regional vice president of Atlanta-based Angel Oak Home Loans. "You can point back to residential financing. Since 2008, the industry has done a great job correcting itself.
"I don’t think it’s perfect. ... but I most definitely think we learned a lot from what happened in 2007 and 2008."
The anything-but-great recession
Economist James Smith doesn't fancy the phrase "Great Recession."
"Yes, it was the worst since the Great Depression," said Smith, chief economist at Asheville-based Parsec Financial Inc. "But that took 25 percent off the economy; this one took 4. It is only a hair worse than (the Recession of 1958). I just don’t like the term."
Indeed it was a far cry from the Great Depression, which saw employment reach about 25 percent and the U.S. GDP decline by almost 27 percent. Unemployment during the most recent recession peaked at 10 percent in October 2009 — by comparison, it was at 4.1 percent nationally in January and hasn't risen above 5 percent since late 2016.
But that's not to say it wasn't brutal on the ones that felt its impacts.
Data from Syneva Economics sheds a little light on the crisis. In Buncombe County, total employment dipped from above 115,000 total jobs in 2007 to below 110,000 in 2009. That figure is north of 130,000 total jobs today.
The net annual employment in the county fell by more than 6,300 jobs in 2009 — the only time since 2005 where Buncombe recorded a loss in that area.
Monthly foreclosures in the county spiked north of 140 homes in 2010 and 2011. The same figure has not risen north of 40 homes since 2016, and last year was recorded below 20.
In the same period, the region's housing market exploded. Beverly-Hanks & Associates reported last month consumer confidence hit a 17-year high in 2017 with median home sale prices on the rise and the region's stock unable to keep up with the consistent demand.
Reflecting on it now, Smith blames two people, in particular, for the conditions that led to the recession: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
He points to the two administrations' desires to expand home ownership and particularly home ownership among lower-income residents. That led to lenders pushing subprime loans, or loans offered to those who do not traditionally qualify for standard home loans because of low credit scores or other factors.
It is estimated as many as 56 percent of homes purchased from 2000 to 2006 were made by people who did not meet traditional lending requirements.
"We did not have a housing rebound, which is what typically brings us back," Smith said. "We do now. Housing has been continuing to grow. It is still way below where it was in 2000-2006 period.
"Housing didn’t come back for several years instead of quickly."
The recovery effort has been gradual, if not a tad slow by most measurements. While the U.S. stock market rose to record numbers in 2017, it is still not a measurement of the strength of the economy. In fact, Gerald Roach, managing partner and an attorney at Smith Anderson in Raleigh, argues the recession widened the divide between urban and rural parts of the country.
As a state, North Carolina is "humming," Roach said, but he's also mindful that rural areas in the state still are feeling a deficit in the ways of industry and infrastructure and jobs.
While unemployment in Asheville's Metropolitan Statistical Area is the lowest in the state, Tom Tveidt of Syneva Economics added that low-earning jobs lead the way in terns if growth in the region and that there are "persistent gaps" in earnings between races and genders.
However, Roach said the recession led to North Carolina business leaders realizing they "need to speak with one voice."
Roach, who specializes in issues such as public company securities and matters of corporate governance, said state leaders are acting "quickly and more decisively" on issues of the economy. He singled out the repeal of HB2 — North Carolina's controversial "bathroom bill" — as well as the efforts that fell just short of landing the $1.6 billion Toyota and Mazda plant as evidence of what has helped the state recover beyond the recession.
"If you look at North Carolina and Western North Carolina, we’re on all the lists," he said. "We are viewed as a positive place. To keep that coming and to be able to retain the businesses we have, the jobs we have and attract new ones and we have to invest in ourselves.
"What that means for government, we need the state – Republican and Democrat leadership – to invest in areas that help us attract and retain jobs for years to come."
To sustain a period of growth, Roach said state leaders should continue to invest in items such as wastewater treatment, education and health care — and that includes in rural pockets of the state.
"We need to remember there is a large part of the state that is not recovered to the same degree as the rest of the state," he said. "We also need to remember that there are large, global competitive economic forces going on and that we need to embrace and celebrate the position that North Carolina has."
'I was good at one thing'
Ashworth was a corporate traffic manager in Gaston County. He had attended Western Carolina University in the 1970s in search of a history degree, at one time with aspirations to go to law school. He left school in 1976.
He later found his life's calling at Roadway, where he started as a clerk in 1979.
He moved up within the industry in parts of three decades during which time he also fathered four children: Michael, David, Erin and Jordan. He married his third wife Ginger Egerton in the mid-2000s and they lived together in Gastonia near Charlotte until he was downsized from his job in 2010.
He'd left the job — for which he was earning a mid-five-figure salary — to return to his hometown of Brevard with three months severance and few prospects.
"There was nothing," he said. "Here I am with 30 years of experience in the transportation industry and there were no jobs in that. I was good at one thing.
"I found myself competing with everybody else for entry-level jobs."
Both he and Egerton found work at a now-gone Sitel call center in Asheville, a job he said carried an emotional toll at the rate of only $9 an hour. Adding to that, he has bipolar disorder and Egerton had not worked for years as Ashworth was making good money and she separately battled symptoms of Asperger's syndrome.
Ashworth was part of a well-publicized effort to unionize the call center, at Egerton's urging, to improve wages and working conditions in the facility. The effort, he said, "never even came close."
Sitel closed its Hendersonville Road location in Asheville in 2016.
He left the call center in 2012 and she continued working there. He found work as a floor tech for a medical facility when he began having a series of heart attacks, the most recent of which came when he was sitting in a doctor's office.
It landed him at Mission Hospital for open-heart surgery, just the latest stressor in an era where he and Egerton often wondered if they soon would be homeless. It was all they collectively could bear. For Egerton, though, it simply had become too much.
While he was laid up in the hospital, she took her own life.
As he recalls it now, he carries a bit of a gruff look, as though the retelling has made him experience losing his wife all over again. He admits he didn't realize how concerned she truly was, though they regularly had discussed the dire condition of their finances.
He also wonders if it should have been him instead, as if fate took the wrong person.
"I'm assuming when I went into the hospital, she lost all hope," he said. "If you love somebody, when they're in the hospital having that surgery, it's probably the worst time to take your life. But for her, she knew I wouldn't (be able to) stop her."
'It was hard for him to let go'
Not everyone's story has the same tenor as what Ashworth felt. Most people in Western North Carolina and throughout the country still felt it, though.
There's people like developer Connie Downey of Weaverville. She and her husband Michael were builders and renovators of residential homes, which they'd done together since they were about 19-years-old.
When the recession hit, they were not able to come up with a $650,000 balloon payment on a stated income loan for a project. On top of that, she says they were "stiffed" on two separate projects totaling about $275,000 in losses, including one that's still in the litigation process.
The result led the family to lose their own home to the bank. They left the home with a lump sum payment to keep it decorated as is and moved the family elsewhere.
It was challenging for Connie. She remembers trying to remain pragmatic despite being delivered what she calls "a major blow." But it was tougher on Michael, who also happens to be a military veteran who deals with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"He couldn’t sleep," she said. "He could not stop thinking about it. He was so cautious about the money in the bank and making money. It drove all of us to the point of exhaustion. He was so impacted by that event in his life. It was hard for him to let go."
Construction jobs were among the hardest hit during the recession, though the industry has added more than 1,000 local jobs in the past five years, according to Tveidt. It is one of seven industries — as well as health care, restaurants and accommodations, retail trade, public administration, administrative services and manufacturing — to add that many jobs during the same period.
Other industries have been mostly flat and only educational services has lost a sizable portion of jobs since 2012, data from Syneva shows.
Today, Connie and Michael's life is a little different. They bought a new house together in early 2015 after several years in a rental home. The couple's sons now run their former construction business. They now collectively manage an antique store, an online store and a cleaning business as well as doing work in water and fire restorations.
"We've been self-employed our whole lives," she said recently. "I would like to say we’re the best employees there were. We’re mature. We’re in our 50s. We’re not young millennials. We have work ethic and we know what it’s like to work.
"We don’t expect anybody to give us anything."
Others had to get creative to navigate the storm of the recession. Bill Jones, president of Carolina Native Nursery in Burnsville, saw the onslaught of the recession and made a difficult choice: He fired production staffers and hired a salesperson.
"The worst thing you can do when things go bad is to cut your marketing and sales budget because then you don't make any sales," he said. "I have the plants and we were starting to get some traction sales-wise. The best thing we could do is to maintain our marketing presence so we didn't break stride in it at all."
Jones is a grower of native and indigenous plants. He works with rewholesalers, landscapers and garden centers. It's all grown on his property — the former site of a tobacco farm — as it has been for the past 16 years. His most significant business is in growing native azaleas, found all over his property as well as in the nursery's logo.
He knew how difficult the time was, especially as his wife, Jill, saw her business go under. What helped him thrive during this period was that he didn't have much of a debt burden in the business, something that sunk more than a few businesses and projects.
Bill Jones, president of Carolina Native Nursery in Burnsville, discusses the recession at his farm February 16, 2018. Angela Wilhelmemail@example.com
Jones said he knew if the nursery could keep selling, they'd ride out the storm.
"Nobody knew how long it would last," he said, "but it wouldn't last forever."
He says they've largely recovered from the recession. On a warm weekday last month, he had several employees hard at work on his 12-acre property, making pitches over the phone and tending to tens of thousands of plants that will land in places like Washington D.C., Central Park in New York City or perhaps a yard in Western North Carolina.
And still others took advantage of opportunities provided by a recession.
Justin Belleme, founder and director of strategy at JB Media Group in Asheville, launched his business in 2010. Part of what made it work at the time was that he could hire some friends who were talented but likely were underemployed in the local market. Belleme put together a team to offer up marketing, advertising and social media services to companies in need of it.
Now he has 15 employees and the business continues to thrive.
"We could offer the services of a fractional employee for less than the cost of an employee," he said. "What we’re seeing now at peak employment is that people would rather just hire someone. We still have a pretty good demand for our services but we are definitely competing with full-time internal options."
'Life goes on, man'
Experts from the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission found the recession was spurred on by "an explosive mix of excessive borrowing and risk by households and Wall Street."
"We conclude collapsing mortgage-lending standards and the mortgage securitization pipeline lit and spread the flame of contagion and crisis," the commission wrote in a 2011 report. "When housing prices fell and mortgage borrowers defaulted, the lights began to dim on Wall Street."
Things were fairly dim for Ashworth then, too. Following Egerton's death, he no longer could afford the apartment they shared. He stayed a brief time with one of his adult children, but ultimately realized he'd be better off at a homeless shelter.
He spent about a year at The Haven of Transylvania County while he got back on his feet and refocused his life. Today, he's retired and considers himself financially secure. In his free time, he sometimes volunteers at The Haven in hopes of helping someone the way they helped him.
A lot of his time now is spent reading — he just finished Mark Bowden's 2001 book, "Killing Pablo." He also does his fair share of writing, mostly of poems. In November, he took second place in a national contest by the InterBoard Poetry Community for his poem, "Lullaby," which details the loss of Egerton.
In it, he writes that "when she'd had enough/ she'd slipped into the tub,/ and closed her eyes/ for the last time against/ the same mad grief/ they say made God/ drown the world." It took him four years to complete, every line break meticulously placed.
For his efforts, judge Michael Larrain remarked the "poem is no less painful for being so very gentle," adding "I cannot imagine anyone encountering it and not being moved."
Asked recently if he's found happiness in the years after what he detailed in his poem, he says he has, but then pauses to correct himself. If nothing else, reflection on the time period has left him at peace, he said.
At least for now, that's more than enough for him.
"Recovering from somebody’s suicide is its own unique grief," he said. "The only thing that can compare is the loss of a child. But ultimately life goes on, man."