The hope of landing well-paying employment brought job seekers to the Siler City campus of Central Carolina Community College for a job fair this week.
Having that job nearby made it even more appealing.
When the Townsend Inc. chicken processing plant closed in 2011 and wiped out out more than 1,000 factory jobs, Siler City suffered and so did the workers.
The last seven years have been tough for Brittany Comer's family. She had many family members laid off when the plant closed. When they found new jobs, most were more than an hour away. Some went north to Greensboro on U.S. 421, others took the southbound exit heading to Sanford.
"That's a lot of extra time and money for gas," Comer said. "Having the plant here is something we really need."
Comer was one of many people this week who applied for a job with Mountaire Farms, the Delaware-based company reopening the chicken plant. She didn't work for Townsend because she was too young, but she sees a job with Mountaire as a good opportunity.
"It's a job, a local job," Comer said. "It's the biggest thing in Siler City since Townsend left. I know a lot of people who lived on unemployment and it was hard until they found work again."
Mountaire will employ about 1,250 people when the plant goes back into production in by the end of the year.
The need for jobs
Chatham County's unemployment rate in April was 3.1 percent, according to state statistics, better than North Carolina's overall 3.7 percent. The unemployment rate does not reflect people who have stopped looking for work.
When the gates at Townsend were padlocked, the effects on Siler City were not immediate. It was a slow decline that saw other businesses close. People struggled to find work.
But there is evidence of a turnaround, said Sara Lambert, who is the career readiness coordinator at Central Carolina Community College's Siler City campus.
"We lost all of our retail except Wal-Mart and Cato," Lambert said. "We still had a lot of people stay, but the jobs weren't here. That's beginning to change."
The workers who stayed in town or in nearby communities are starting to find work closer to home, she said.
Ilana Dubester of the Hispanic Liaison knows people who worked in the old plant.
"Some left, some stayed," she said. "Some started their own businesses. But they weren't making the same money."
When Mountaire Farms bought the old plant in 2016 with plans to restart production, it was good news for job seekers. The company initially promised a $70 million investment and about 500 jobs. It's since increased to $160 million and 1,250 jobs, more than Townsend had when it closed in 2011.
Mountaire's arrival already is having a ripple effect the local economy.
Malinda Marsh, manager of the Chatham County NCWorks Career Center, said the number of job fairs has increased since Mountaire announced it was coming to Siler City. This was the second one for the company, and she said another with four other local companies is planned.
"It seems like the floodgates opened with Mountaire," Marsh said. "They're having an impact and they're not open, yet."
A kiss for good luck
It started with a small slip of paper. Applicants received the slip containing their instructions as they entered the job fair. It explained the four-step process they were about to follow. One woman kissed her instruction slip before entering the building.
Signs on the entrance were in English and Spanish.
Chatham County has about 75,000 people and about 12 percent are Hispanic. Those lined up to apply were white, black and Hispanic.
The company needs production managers, refrigeration technicians, general laborers, IT technicians and nurses. A vast majority of jobs will be poultry workers on the production line.
Mario Burgess said he was looking for any job he could get at Mountaire.
"I want an opportunity for work." Burgess said. "I want to prove myself and show I'm a good worker."
The average annual salary for workers will be about $28,000.
'I want a better job'
Mountaire representatives were easy to spot. They all wore matching red golf shirts emblazoned with the company's logo.
About 600 people applied at the first job fair last month, said company representative Dan Murphy. They'll have another one in July.
Thursday's event drew an initial rush at the 10 a.m. start time but the pace slowed through the day. There was another surge of people after 5 p.m.
"I finished working and came here," Jose Ramirez said. "I have a job, but I want a better job."
Most of the people filled out their applications and left with a Mountaire tchotchke — a chicken-shaped stress squeezer, a fidget spinner or an insulated cup with the company logo.
A few applicants were lucky enough to land an immediate interview with Murphy after filling out their paperwork.
Mobile home park closing
Mountaire's arrival is negatively impacting one nearby neighborhood, though. The company purchased property next door — a trailer park that was home to about 100 people. The company needed the land to expand the plant.
In March, the company reached a deal that would pay residents $8,300 per lot — some of which are home to one family, others to multiple families — and to extend the date they need to be gone from May 7 until July 31.
The residents are largely Spanish-speaking immigrants and their children. Some have been in the mobile home park only a few years. Others have lived there for decades. Many of them moved to the area to find work in the chicken plants.
About half of the 28 mobile homes have been vacated. Dubester said 13 families remain, but they expect to be out by the deadline so that everyone receives their final payment.