Bringing new business and jobs to Rowan the hot topic at community forum

SALISBURY, NC (WBTV) - Hard hit by the recession, Rowan County has found the path back to prosperity to be more difficult than some of its neighboring counties.

On Wednesday leaders and members of the public came together for the second forum specifically designed to talk about how to fix the problems the county faces.

When you say Rowan County, this is what comes to mind for some: closed factories, locked gates, even the rubble of a manufacturing base, but in some places there is a new vision.

"Right here off of 85 we have a whole new development going in," said Rowan County Commission Chairman Greg Edds. "Dick's Sporting Goods, Kirklands, Hobby Lobby, hotels are coming, three new hotels being built now…we have new manufacturing that's going on that will provide next year 250 jobs and over the next few years that amount will double."

Edds comments represent the kind of success the county needs to see, and the forum held on Wednesday is where some ideas originate to push that vision.

"Economic development is the lifeblood of paying for all the things that we as a community really value," Edds added.

The panel of experts shared "effective and proven strategies" for local economic development at the Community Forum at the Rowan County Agricultural Extension Center, according to the Rowan Chamber.

Members of the panel represented communities similar to Rowan County who have demonstrated success in job growth, industrial recruitment, and infrastructure development.

Topics and panelists included:

"Product Development Models That Work" - Kristin H. Reese, Executive Director, Cleveland County Economic Development Partnership

"Retooling Your Workforce" – Hope Hopkins, Operations Director, Burke Partnership for Economic Development Inc.

"Leveraging Local Assets for Targeted Industry Recruitment" - R. Christopher Plate, Executive Director of Economic Development and Aviation, Monroe-Union County

Ted Abernathy, economic development policy advisor to the Southern Governors' Association and founder of Economic Leadership LLC, was the keynote speaker.

The 2015 forum is the fourth event planned and implemented through the Community Forum Steering Committee. The committee is chaired by Pete Teague, Dixon Hughes Goodman, LLP, and is comprised of representatives from the Gateway Building partners including: Downtown Salisbury, Inc.; Communities in Schools of Rowan County; the Land Trust of Central North Carolina; Rowan County Chamber of Commerce; RowanWORKS Economic Development; and, Salisbury-Rowan Convention and Visitors' Bureau.

The ultimate goal of the Community Forum Project is to facilitate information sharing and discussion to help create a shared vision for Rowan County. The community forum process provides an avenue for Rowan County business and community leaders and private citizens to come together and develop a plan for more positive working relationships among our key community partners.

The Community Forum Steering Committee received financial support in 2014 from the Blanche and Julian Robertson Foundation to further develop the process launched from the first community forum. The initial March 2014 event validated education and economic development as the two primary issues for Rowan County. Subsequent forums in May and September of 2014 centered on the new strategic plan for the Rowan-Salisbury School System and a County-wide Literacy Summit focusing on literacy needs in K-12 and adult populations in our community, according to the press release provided to WBTV.

And during the Wednesday morning forum the experts and others in attendance didn't back away from discussing the challenges.

"Lack of vision and poverty increasing, education results, lack of cooperation, we have not been working together," said local businessman John Leatherman. "You can't solve anything without public buy in, that's my opinion."

One specific example of a challenge faced by Rowan County is the lack of suitable empty buildings, or spec buildings put up by developers. Having such property has been a big success in neighboring Cabarrus County.

"A lot of times a company will look at our area but we may not have the building that they need. We have buildings, but we may not have what they need," said Pete Teague, Chairman of the Steering Committee for the Community Forum. "That's a big issue because you get eliminated pretty quickly if you don't have the place for them to come."

But there are clear advantages that this county offers. On Wednesday they talked about I-85, the Yadkin River, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, and the county's location.

"The fact that we are near other pretty significant population centers, Charlotte and the Triad, is not a bad thing either," Teague added.

And while the unemployment rate has improved, it still isn't where it should be, according to Teague.

"Our unemployment is lower than it was, but we still have a lot of people looking for jobs, we also have a lot of people who are working but at jobs below what they are capable of."

The hope is that ideas can come from this kind of collaboration to bring new business and better paying jobs to Rowan County. Many in the room pointed to a new spirit of a shared vision among city, county, and school leaders, and hope that will make the county more attractive.

"We just have things that other communities would love to have, we're just not taking advantage of it," Leatherman added.