Locals feel what cannot be told in statistics

By Haley M. Walker | hwalker@flagler.edu

Joyce Campbell said she cannot give much more.

Campbell is the owner of the Native Traditions Gallery on Cordova Street in downtown St. Augustine. For the first time in 10 years, the business is running on 25 percent of its normal sales. The economic decline has forced Campbell to make changes to keep her doors open.

“I have let all my employees go, and I am working six days a week,” she said. “I try to stay as long as I can so I can hope for a dollar each day.”

Campbell has also sold some of her personal belongings in the store and had to acquire credit card debt. “I can’t put every part of my life at risk to keep this going,” she said.

As business owners across the country make adjustments in response to the declining economy, unemployment continues to increase. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national unemployment rate is currently 7.6 percent, approximately 2.7 percent higher than last year. Florida sits above the national average at 8.1.

Nick Sacia, the executive director of the Economic Development Council for the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce, said while he recognizes the economy’s effects on St. Augustine, he feels the local impact may not be as significant as the surrounding areas. He noted that St. Augustine’s unemployment rate is currently lower than many others in the state, and wage rates are continuing to increase.

The housing market has not suffered as severely either because local building never took off as quickly as in some counties, according to Sacia.

St. Augustine’s unemployment rate was 6.6 percent in December 2008, according to the Florida Research and Economic Database. The rate for Flagler County was 11.7 percent.

“I don’t mean that our economy isn’t suffering,” Sacia said. “We have lost a few industries, but because we are more diversified than other areas in Florida, we are able to weather the storm a little better.”

To Jeremy Smith, a 26-year-old St. Augustine resident, the impact seems greater than the numbers show. The certified RV technician was laid off twice last year. The second time fell two weeks before Christmas. While he currently collects unemployment, he worries he will have to return to a fast food restaurant for work soon. “In St. Augustine, it’s bad,” Smith said. “The only thing in this job market right now is underpaid jobs.”

Jamie Gullion, a local agent with Randstad, a recruitment and employment agency, said she sees many qualified workers come to the business in search of work. “Higher skilled trade workers are now taking entry-level warehouse jobs,” Gullion said. “We are trying to do the best we can, but we are slow as well.”

According to Sacia, the economy may never go back to its booming state, but businesses and individuals must learn how to readjust their plans to survive.

Campbell said she wishes she could rely on a bailout to save her shop. “We are no different than Frannie Mae or Freddie Mac,” she said.

“If you know anyone who wants to buy a nice Indian shop, let me know.”

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