Sour Town

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"One of the saddest meetings I've ever had in my business career was to go up there and sit down with the mayor and let him know we would be closing our business. That was a very difficult time," Spiritas says.

In addition to the lost jobs, the departure of Supreme Beef Packers cost Ladonia about $25,000 a month in water and sewer payments. The economic impact on the already depressed Ladonia economy is obvious, but the city's dwindling population will take it in stride, say some residents.

"There'd been rumors flying around that it's going to kill the school, but in realistic terms, the kids that went to school here went to school before their parents worked out there," Braley says. "It's not like they're professional, professional killing employees; they just went to work there because it was a job opening. It was very convenient and local," he says. "It's been closed before."

But the closure cost the city its police department, and that loss is something new even to Ladonians who stayed while learning to get by during the last 50 years of decline. Although the Fannin County sheriff agreed to help out and a sheriff's squad car can be seen prowling through town once in a while, it's a temporary fix.

"That's really the thing that concerns me the most," Braley says. "I mean, like I say, I was born and raised here, but we've always had at least one policeman of some type."

Roy Brown, another economic casualty who recently could be found in Ladonia sitting on the hood of a car smoking a cigarette, says he's collecting unemployment since being laid off from the city's water department. He's getting about half as much from unemployment as he received from his city job, which he held for about a year and a half before the city council cut him from the budget right after Supreme Beef shut down. The Ladonia resident and father of three, displaying the sangfroid that seems common in these parts, says that although there isn't much work in the area, he'll get by.

"It didn't have nothing to do with me," he says, then laughs at his own misfortune. "It'll work out. I'll leave it in the Lord's hands."

Ladonia's mayor since 1992, 77-year-old Leon Hurse, is confident Ladonia will recover.

"We're in a budget crunch...We're trying to cut our expenses as much as possible," the mayor says from his rumpled office filled with dated, worn furniture and a wall clock that's stopped.

Supreme Beef's $25,000 a month represented about half the city's spending money and "was our livelihood, so to speak," Hurse says.

"I'm optimistic we're going to stay in business, but it's not going to be easy," he says. "We're not going to fix any streets or anything like that for the next year or so. We don't have any projects we're going to carry out. We're just going to try to survive."

Hurse says the city still has something to offer in the way of houses for commuters and ample resources for another cattle processor or some other industry.

"We've got plenty of water, and we have a new sewer plant," he says. "We can handle the water. We can handle the water, and we can handle the wastewater. We can handle anything they want to drop on us."

Still, he concedes he's not thrilled about being mayor at the moment. When asked whether he will seek re-election when his two-year term is up next year, Hurse quickly says, "No, I will not." Then he adds, "I shouldn't have run this time."

Hurse, Brown, Braley, and others may greet Ladonia's doubtful future with an odd mix of optimism and fatalism, but Bob Bledsoe has other, more ambitious plans.

The owner of Beanie Adhesive Products Inc., a label-making company and the city's only manufacturing business, is trying to make something--anything--happen at the site of the closed slaughterhouse. He's confident he'll find a suitable industry to take over where Supreme Beef left off.

"What I'm doing, I'm putting together a book of our assets, and what that will cover is our town square, which is rather nice, our churches, our school system, the businesses we have now in place, our post office, our volunteer fire department--all the things that interest people about small-town America. I'll get a book together, and I'll find potential people and do a mailing on that book and invite them down to look at our town," he says.

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Charles Siderius
Contact: Charles Siderius