The South's fiery growth begins to flicker

Some of the steam that powered the South's economic boom for more than a decade has cooled.

And economic analysts say it's unlikely to return, even after the region recovers from the effects of recession.

The flow of eager Northerners, Midwesterners, companies, and capital to the South is diminishing, says researcher Gene D. Sullivan of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. This slowdown is ''part of what's happening to the whole country,'' he says.

But even after the national economy begins its recovery -- a recovery to which the South is in a good position to respond quickly -- the flow will not likely regain its former strength, he adds. Rising levels of education among Southerners are erasing the advantage many non-Southerners once had when they arrived in this region with a list of academic credentials. Property values, taxes, and production costs are increasing.

What the South is seeing is ''an equalization of conditions between the Southeast and the rest of the country,'' says Mr. Sullivan.

Like other regions, the South is experiencing the heavy weight of recession. The economic slump has thrown thousands of Southern steel, textile, construction , and other workers out of their jobs. It has forced many farmers in areas hit by drought the last four out of five years to fall way behind on loan payments. And recession has crimped tourism in a region that has grown to depend on it.

Unemployment rates in some Deep South states have surpassed the national rate of 8.8 percent. Alabama, following two years of economic slump, reached 13.9 percent unemployment in January. Tennessee hit 10.9 and Mississippi, 10.

If Louisiana, ''whose economy has been boosted by petroleum,'' and Florida, ''whose economy is slowing,'' were not included in the South, the region would have been hit ''a bit harder'' than the rest of the nation by recession, says Charles Renfrow, director of regional forecasting for Chase Econometrics.

But the South is likely to bounce back fairly quickly once the recession yields, says Evan Brunson, research director for the Southern Growth Policies Board, a regional pro-growth organization supported by Southern states.

Good climate, available land, and a cost of living and tax structure that are still relatively low will continue to make this a popular region, he says.

Atlanta, a hub for Southern growth, was recently named the nation's most livable city -- not by the local chamber of commerce but in a list of 277 metropolitan areas in ''Places Rated Almanac,'' published by Rand McNally. Such publicity is likely to spur the area's already rapid growth.

Across the South, cautiously optimistic economic outlooks are carefully hinged on one word: ''if.'' If the national economy recovers, so will the region's, forecasters say.

'' 'If' is a very, very large word,'' says Carl Ferguson, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. His outlook for Alabama: ''no growth'' through most of 1982, with some chance of improvement late in the year.

If the national economy starts improving, Alabama's steel plants will be in the first wave of that recovery, he says. Steel, forest products, textile, and other manufacturing provide one of the solid supports for the Southern economy in normal times. But when people buy fewer cars and homes, workers in such industries suffer.

Dalton, Ga., a carpet manufacturing center, and Gadsden, Ala., a steel and carpet center, both had unemployment rates of 22 percent in January, says Charlie Carter, a federal reserve economist here.

Cuts in federal spending are having an effect in the South, too. Sometimes the effects are small on a national scale, but weighty on the individuals involved. The closing of the Atlanta Day Labor Service Center for lack of federal support puts a number of men back on street corners in all kinds of weather as they wait to be hired.

But Atlanta general contractor Bernard Kroll sees continuing development under defense contracts as well as in big retail stores. There has been a definite slowdown in construction of condominums, small shopping centers, and offices, he adds. Investors seem to be waiting for better times.

''I've got clients with a lot of things on the drawing boards,'' he says.

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