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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Hopes for traditional hosiery industry despite state focus on technology

Textiles was a rural option, Smith thinks, for workers driven off their failing farms, and represents an older component of North Carolina's industrial profile. But Smith thinks that the industry has been loyal to the state and he believes that the state government recognizes the industry's loyalty and role as a significant employer despite its interest in attracting high-tech companies.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Sidney Smith, January 25, 1999. Interview I-0081. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JM: [Can] we move to a few questions about the broader, North Carolina regional economy in these last several decades and get your perspective on it? [I am interested in] your observations of your fellow business leaders in the state and trends. What's your sense of the most important structural changes in the post-war North Carolina and southeastern regional economy? What would you say, if you had to paint a quick sketch of the most significant shifts? SS: I think the first one is the one that a lot of us older timers -- more traditionalists -- think is the demise of the family farm. I think that's had a critical impact economically all across this country. North Carolina had a very agricultural based economy all through the Civil War and into the current age, so the demise of that family farm has had a big impact. That has driven those employees, those people, into more industrial work. Textiles was the first alternative to turn to, going back several decades. That's why a lot of textile operations opened up in rural areas rather than big cities, because of labor. The people were out there, not in the big city. That was [a] help. What we're seeing now is scarcity of labor. [Now] we're seeing the high tech, high wage companies move into the area. Our state economy -- even our state government --rightfully so, says, “We would like to diversify our state economy. We'd like to have a little bit of everything here. We'd like to attract a lot of these high tech, high paying, new-era companies, the IBM's, the BMW's, and the others here.” That's fine, but it adds to the labor force [and to] labor market pressures that the traditional industry faces. It brings a certain amount of consternation among traditional industries that, “You're taking my tax dollars to attract another industry. You're actually even subsidizing them or supporting them in some way and then they take my labor away because they can pay higher prices.” Now something's not right here. There has got to be a balance somewhere. [There needs to be an] understanding of, “Yeah, we like having some of these companies around, too.” But, don't do it at the expense of your traditional core industries. [This is] the old, “stay with the girl you brought to the dance” kind of approach. JM: Has that battle been fought and lost, [do] you think? Or, is that battle still underway? SS: I think that battle is still underway. I think there has been a raising of awareness in the legislative, regulatory environment, among the eyes of the politicians that don't lose sight of your traditional industries because they're still your biggest employees, employers. They're still your biggest taxpayers. But, looking at South Carolina and the big BMW plant down there outside of Spartanburg, there are people that tell me that with all of the incentives and the write offs, they built a state of the art manufacturing facility [and] that after twenty-five years, they can close that plant and walk away because it's totally paid for and they have nothing invested in it. That's not true in textiles because we built them ourselves. So, I think government has got to get back to understanding that. I think we've raised their consciousness, but I'm not sure we're back to a full understanding of what that really means, nor what they can do to be helpful. Government-industry partnerships in training, in technology and things like that and transferring technology, they're great. That is catching on, but I think there are some other things we can do. I don't have all the answers, but it's a big battle.