Delta town braces for a rough landing

Fayetteville, Ga. is home to thousands of Delta Air Lines employees, and is at risk of taking a major hit now that the No. 3 U.S. carrier is in bankruptcy protection.Gene Blythe / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the waning months of the Civil War, Union forces almost burnt down the Fayette County Courthouse, diverted at the town square by a flag-waving lawyer who convinced the troops he was a bigger threat than the building.

Now the courthouse is the site of a battleground of different sorts. In a second-floor office of the aging building, the president of Fayette County's development authority is trying to prevent this aviation-friendly county's economic engine from sputtering now that its biggest employer, Delta Air Lines, has filed for bankruptcy.

On Brian Cardoza's desk sits the resume of a 32-year veteran Delta mechanic, one of thousands of airline employees and retirees viewing an uncertain future from this tree-lined county a half-hour south of Atlanta.

When Delta sneezes, this county of about 100,000 used to come down with a cold. After the company filed for bankruptcy two weeks ago, Cardoza's one of the officials pressured to make sure it doesn't flatline.

It's no small task in a county where 3,500 are employed by Delta and as many as 15 percent of residents have some tie to the aviation industry.

Businesses are already feeling the burn. In nearby Peachtree City, shops that took off as the nearby Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport boomed are suddenly seeing less foot traffic. Some, like the Plumyumi Day Spa, are offering discounts to Delta families to keep business humming.

In Fayetteville, the county seat, commercial sales tax receipts have dropped by about 3.5 percent since Delta's turbulence began.

Fayetteville, Ga. Mayor Ken Steele shows an area growth plan at City Hall in Fayetteville Monday, Sept. 19, 2005. The Delta Air Lines bankruptcy filing was a long-dreaded day for the Mayor, a former Delta pilot. (AP Photo/Gene Blythe)Gene Blythe / AP

The city's leadership — the mayor and three of the five councilmembers have Delta ties _ is also trying to do its part. City Manager Joe Morton said the city has tightened its budget growth below 1 percent, less than the rate of inflation.

The bankruptcy filing was a long-dreaded day for Mayor Ken Steele, a former Delta pilot. Like others, he knew Delta had struggled since the Sept. 11 terror attacks and had heard rumors the airline would file as early as last year, but he still held out hope.

"The most significant thing is the psyche of the community," he said. "Delta has been a big family, and when one hurts, we all hurt."

He presides over a city that has boomed with construction as Atlanta's airport became the world's busiest.

"This is not a factory town," he said.

'I wish there was something we could do'
At the courthouse, Cardoza and his assistant Amanda are busy posting online a steady trickle of resumes and job skill qualifications from nervous Delta employees and Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Only a few days after filing for bankruptcy, the airline announced it will eliminate up to 9,000 more jobs — about 17 percent of its remaining work force — and slash pay for many employees.

"I wish there was something we could do," Cardoza said. "But you let the market drive things. With the announcement of more job cuts and pay cuts, our focus will be on those who lose their jobs or decide to find a different job."

Over the past few decades, Fayetteville and the surrounding county has emerged as one of the more desirable suburbs of Atlanta, acclaimed for its quality of life and quality schools. McMansions have sprouted alongside aging subdivisions, spurring off historic downtown streets named Beauregard, Lee and Jeff Davis.

"In the late 60s and 70s, Fayette County was considered a bedroom community for the airport," said John Lynch, the town's historian. "Now, we have so many people from so many areas."

On the edge of town, the Fayette Pavilion, a massive shopping complex, is bursting with big-box retailers. The Pavilion's receipts have taken a slight hit since Delta's filing, Morton says, but it's the restaurants, gyms and novelty stores that may suffer the most.

At Fayette Collectibles, an antique mart off Stonewall Avenue, owner Jean Johnson has sold her porcelain figures, cutouts of NASCAR legends and assorted memorabilia for 15 years. Even the building's bathroom is crammed with merchandise.

Since Delta has stumbled, fewer folks have ambled through the building's narrow hallways on a hunt for quirky antiques.

"This is as bad as I've ever seen it," Johnson said. "We'll be making some decisions soon as to whether we stay in business. I don't see much hope. It's really depressing to us."

Standing outside a sprawling field of dirt waiting to sprout houses priced above $250,000, Mayor Steele takes stock of the situation. He says his job is to be an enabler, a facilitator for business in town and he's relentlessly upbeat about his city's future.

"We've got big plans. The bad times will pass," he said. "Yep, this too, shall pass."

Still, he says with a shrug, "In Chapter 11 there are no winners."