- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2010

AIKEN, S.C. | Most people in South Carolina didn’t vote for Barack Obama and did not want any part of his stimulus cash, and folks in a particularly poor, hard-hit swath near the Georgia line were no exception - until the money showed up.

The stimulus law targeted about $1.6 billion to create 3,100 temporary jobs in a rural corner of the state cleaning up the Savannah River Site, which already employed about 9,000 and churned out radioactive metals for the nation’s nuclear arsenal during the Cold War.

“I am convinced it’s what kept Aiken’s economy stronger than most communities during these poor economic times,” said David Jamison, president of the local Chamber of Commerce in the solidly Republican city just north of the nuclear facility. “I think it has worked exactly like the way Washington had in mind. … I see it every single day.”

Opposition to the president and the stimulus were fierce in conservative South Carolina, which Republican Sen. John McCain carried in the 2008 presidential election. GOP Gov. Mark Sanford led angry residents in the charge to keep stimulus money for education out of the state, saying it would ultimately leave the economy in worse shape when the money dries up next year.

So far, though, that chunk of the $787 billion appears to be doing what the president promised - keeping high unemployment rates from skyrocketing and giving residents some hope they can fight their way through the worst economic decline since the Great Depression.

Times are tough in South Carolina, where unemployment in March was 12.2 percent, the sixth-highest rate in the country. Near the Savannah River, Allendale County had the state’s second-highest jobless rate at 22.4 percent in February. Unemployment rates at two other nearby counties, Barnwell and Bamberg, were 19.9 percent and 17.7 percent, respectively.

The new hires for stimulus jobs came from a broad area including parts of South Carolina and Georgia, and unemployment rates have continued to creep upward even since the positions were filled. It was unlikely the jobs would strongly affect rates in any single county, but Mr. Obama has argued the recession would have been worse without the federal dollars and jobs like those at Savannah River.

The cost? Around $500,000 per job - but that money covers overhead and other costs at the site.

Thousands of applicants flocked to job fairs and waited hours in the hot sun for a chance to speak with Savannah River recruiters. To one of those new employees, it wasn’t just a job opportunity - it was a saving grace.

Bob McClearen worked at Savannah River for 18 years until he was laid off in 1997, working on company presentations and business development. Mr. McClearen then struggled for more than a decade to make ends meet, opening a shipping store with his brother-in-law that closed last year because of the recession.

Scrambling to pay the mortgage on the shuttered store, Mr. McClearen said he jumped at the opportunity to return to Savannah River when a friend told him about the new jobs. Now, Mr. McClearen is a technical editor, helping engineers plan cleanup efforts for the reactors and making sure photographs are taken before and after the work.

“To me, this is home,” Mr. McClearen said. “Some people are half-empty, half-full people. I’m just glad to have a glass with something in it.”

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who didn’t support the stimulus and has called the effort a failure, said he is still worries the massive influx of cash will not be properly managed. He also has warned of looming higher taxes that he said could shutter the businesses the package was supposed to help.

“The fact that the stimulus created some economic activity in that area is a good thing,” Mr. Graham said.

However, he said, “I worry, has this money been absorbed in a rational process? Is it going to projects that are worthy?”

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