Thom: First of all, I would like to congratulate Carmen on winning the Edison Project for 2017. I, Thom Shell, was a part of the Future Economy Council group, created by Danny Hearn of the Catawba County Chamber of Commerce that spoke to the “Vision” of such a contest for start-ups and innovators in our community. We all must thank Garrett Hinshaw – President of Catawba Valley Community College, Bill Parrish – formerly of the Small Business and Technology Development Center, Sid Connor – formerly Director of the NC Center for Engineering Technologies, and Jeff Neuville and Tom Shea local Business Developing Entrepreneurs (and others) who all came together to establish, implement, and mentor this program.
These and other endeavors can help our area move forward. We should all take an interest in such initiatives and support them in whatever way we can. You may not realize that, just by reading this magazine, you are helping support several local entrepreneurs, innovators, and creative people in our community. I hope that you will spread the word about this interesting magazine. We need to support the true assets of our community.
The subject matter of this Fox and Hound opinion article is about “Vision” for our region. It is an open ended discussion and here are some ideas about our future.
“Vision” for our community? … Something that I have elaborated on before on my site “The Hickory Hound.” What are our objectives? Where do we want to be in 5, 10, to 25 years as far as Economic, Cultural, and Social Development?
One – I truly believe the backbone of progress is based upon the necessity to engage and encourage the broadest possible dialogue with the largest number of people possible. Society is strongest when there is an active, informed citizenry. A small pool of participants tends to limit initiative and stagnate ideas, ultimately leading to a small closed circuit group acting in their own self interests with the public interest taking a backseat.
Two – Economic growth correlates to quality of life. Over the past several years, I have taken a trip down to the Eastern half of the State to visit family that live east of Fayetteville. This journey involves the most heavily traveled driving routes in this State and I have observed what is the reality of economic division in what is the ‘Tale of Two States’ in North Carolina.
The northern route I-40/I-85 corridor has been developed rapidly over the past 25 years. From Winston-Salem to Raleigh, it is hard to tell where one city ends and the next begins. Raleigh is the fastest growing metropolitan area in our State. The I-95 corridor from Raleigh to Fayetteville is growing by leaps and bounds. The southern route involves Charlotte, which has always done its own thing pretty well. Most of the other areas in North Carolina, including the Northwest Foothills, have been left behind by the narrow focus of the decision makers in the State and Federal governments.
Three – No investment equals no growth. Look at your personal life. You have to make investments to have personal growth. You have to buy food to live. You have to have shelter. You have to have health and hygiene. Of course, there are two types of investments – good and bad.
One thing is for sure, Charlotte’s population has nearly doubled over the past 25 years. Charlotte, with over 800,000 people, is now larger than Atlanta. Charlotte has been good at taking care of Charlotte and our area is going to have to get good at taking care of our interests. Generally speaking we have nine counties that have the same interests – Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Watauga, and Wilkes. We are a much more rural area than the City of Charlotte, but together this area has a population of over 500,000.
The bottom line is that our area deserves more attention. We have a great University in Appalachian State and we have access to several technical schools. What is important is that our area must become more interconnected.
What I envision is a Regional Economic Development Corporation that incorporates all of these Northwestern North Carolina counties. This entity would coordinate the overall economic interests of our entire area. The counties would no longer be competing amongst themselves for viable projects. They would begin working together to compete against larger markets, such as Charlotte and Raleigh. I would also like to see a consolidation of the various Chambers of Commerce in the region. In my opinion, we don’t need a separate Chamber of Commerce in every county. It just isn’t viable. Each county would have representatives and headquarters within these entities to ensure they are properly represented, but they would coordinate towards the big picture.
Of course there is more, but I believe these are good initial steps towards building a solid, constructive foundation for our future.
Though not technically in Northwestern North Carolina, Catawba County is a waystation between that region and the Piedmont’s economic activity. Our economy is invariably linked to those regions we connect as neighbors and we should see our futures as intertwined. With investment in the area by 21st century industries and infrastructure, and local governments advocating for citizen interests without reserve, the diversity of our young population will stay and expand the economic capacity.
There are ways we can capitalize on our neighboring county’s successes, we just need potential companies and our citizenry to find common ground here to build on. Economic opportunity must reach everyone, and the whole of our diverse population should be respected and supported in efforts of growth as well. Our public transportation systems are basic and limiting, which is a hindrance to both our citizenry and attracting more progressive industry. Among our goals should be public transportation options to allow mobility of our masses to meet the needs that are only a few miles away, and options for efficient travel to and from the Charlotte area.
With the completion of the 485 loop and the recent improvements to highway 16 the trip from Charlotte’s Douglas International Airport to the heart of Catawba County is quicker than ever, which makes us a prime target for corporate investment. A line along the highway 16 route to connect to Charlotte’s Lynx Light Rail would open doors for commuters to live cheaper here and invest city salaries in our communities. We have inexpensive land that is connected to the Northwest region and the national roadways with I-40, we have inexpensive energy that includes some from renewables, we have a young and diverse population, we have varied recreation opportunities, and we have moderate weather. All we need are a few more options for industrial growth and an efficient means for our workforce to move around.
Because we are a forward-looking area…potential companies, our communities, and our educational centers, are working on some of it already.
The Hickory, Morganton, Lenoir, area was recently rated as the 8th least educated in the nation. One reason we don’t attract such investment in modern economic activity is a need for skilled workers in varied fields. We have one of the most advanced centers for medical education in the simulated hospital at Catawba Valley Community College, which now sees 25% of its enrollment come from county high school students. The college’s recent investments in the expansion of their manufacturing and furniture programs can help us rebuild some of the ground lost to outsourcing. The center for modern manufacturing techniques will tune up those jobs in the region and the Furniture Academy will help solidify the presence of one of our oldest industries.
The Northwestern region also boasts great centers for higher learning, but their resort and tourist economies don’t support the graduates for the most part. Charlotte and other cities traditionally get the new blood, but we can change that by getting more of the most sought-after industries to settle outside of city expenses. CVCC has had a Cyber Security program, its return should be lobbied for. In recent years, Cyber Security’s open positions are going unfilled nationally and there are 80-100k jobs begging for qualified candidates in Baltimore and some other cities. Let’s have Western NC become a home from Cyber Security Education and service, along with its national security investments, and bring a couple thousand professional positions in the 40-80k range to air conditioned rooms across the NW and Foothills.
If we build it, they will come…both the companies looking for less expensive overhead and the graduates of CVCC, App. State, and UNCA.
Though we expanded diversity and mixed the political ideologies a bit in recent elections, we saw less than 20% turnout. We will need to improve that if we really want everyone bought into a vision. How about demographic targeting with real incentives, like an expansion of our power systems to include solar on all store and warehouse roofs? If we want to get attention and make it easier for younger folks to invest in property and add to the community, bill North Western NC as the lowest cost energy in the state. Not to mention…keep things going the next time a tornado waltzes by.
We have young African American communities, we have young Latino communities, we have young Asian communities, we have a strong LGBTQ community, and plenty of Conservatives and Liberals who sit together and talk like people of good will do. Hickory hosts a Free Thinkers Convention welcoming Atheists from all over the world each year, surrounded by many churches of many faiths, so we have a great melting pot of ideas and cultures. I think we have the civic will and social tolerance to make these things happen.
That is a great strength of Catawba County, North Western North Carolina, and the state as a whole. Let’s be sure, that our little corner, no one gets left behind.
Gabriel, since I pretty much agreed with what you addressed in your open summary on “Vision”, please tell us what you think the younger generations are going to need to make our region a viable option for living and desirable quality of life issues? Please, as a Millennial, define our area’s present reality from
your perspective/point of view…
Yes, congratulations to Carmen for the recognition of her work and skill, to Foothills Digest for the acclaim. Thanks also to James for his insightful reporting and work for the area and our neighbors. To your question: Access is key to growth, and according to research from 2014 less than 25% of 16-year-old’s in the US had their licenses. That’s a 46% drop from 30 years earlier, and those in their 20’s were nearly 20% less likely to drive. Whether this is fuel cost issues, auto cost issues, licensure requirements, or whatever, the point is clear…younger people need transportation options. As may have been noted in your writings on Hickory Hound, the mass transit systems within the county are quite constricting.
After losing a business in Charlotte during the recession, my daughter and I spent a few years in public housing in Hickory. So, we relied on public transportation for a while, and had I not had friends with cars and the skills to get hired in specialty services we could still be there. The bus system really doesn’t cover much of our area’s housing, and though the lines cover main thoroughfares, lower income folks and young people lack access to much of the economic activity. Not to mention the hours of operation. Also, and sadly, during early voting days each year the voting place for the citizens of Maiden is the Newton Main Library. For those with no transportation, and no bus that connect the downtowns, many of those citizens can’t make it.
There are grants available for transportation expansion from both the federal government and the state, with millions available to an innovative approach, so let’s put folks to work getting other folks to work. How about contracts with transportation companies to subsidize fares for cabs, which can charge 10 bucks to go 5 miles in some cases, or perhaps the expansion and regulated use of services like Uber? This expands fleets and drivers, gets young people to work and school, and makes a statement about access and its impact when we see the resulting economic activity? This model is intended for Catawba County, and other counties in the NW NC region must work with their demographics and needs, but I think it could be an option for some.
In many ways, the young people of the area have been let down. Reeducation and training after the loss of industry wasn’t incentivized locally and access wasn’t prioritized, though it is now being worked on for certain citizens, many aren’t feeling it. As you have mentioned in regards to CVCC, and thanks for your efforts there too, investments have been made in the future. I would advocate a more open trade education, though. I am the Business Manager of a Plumbing Company, and I would love a few plumbing courses, or a certificate program in ours and other trades. But, that’s what we are here for, to observe and inform and advocate reasonable goals…would you advocate for that as well?
There are a lot of young people here who feel separated, and little ownership in our communities. I recently spoke to government classes at CVCC and noticed in one of them that most of the class was in the largest seat section to the left of me, while the five African American students sat to themselves on the right of me. Though I am a few years senior to a Millennial, these folks were right there in the age range and demographic to feel the impact of the decimation of the strong middle-class model in favor of “Voodoo Economics” and dog whistle politics. Other groups, like our Latino citizens, our LGBTQ community, and even some secular students in very religious parts of our area, are feeling a bit more directly targeted of late. This won’t engender a desire to stay, though many of us are trying to encourage the will to work towards change the old-fashioned way. With the patience, character, and the work ethic, of Western North Carolina.
How should we go about connecting the economic centers of Northwestern NC and Catawba County with Charlotte in order to bring companies to a future suburban area? Public transportation investment, or attracting private enterprise…preferably both? How about a Hyper-loop…It’s possible, if far fetched?
How should we most effectively engage our population and activate its diverse base? Public events management, educational outreach, outside recruiting…?
Gabriel, I cannot disagree with anything you have proposed. 100%, I agree that we must interconnect ourselves with neighboring communities and the region at-large. Whether we like it or not, we are a part of Charlotte. As a person with direct connections to Charlotte, I appreciate the growth Charlotte has experienced over this generation. Charlotte has grown from a regional to a national and is becoming an international city right before our eyes.
With regards to your question/statement regarding direct transportation connectivity to Charlotte, I could not have said it better myself. On the Hickory Hound, I spoke of this direct light rail link into Charlotte – Light Rail to Charlotte: One Investment Worth Making – January 25, 2009.
That article also involved the connection of Amtrak high speed rail between Charlotte and Atlanta. The region we live in is a Megalopolis that stretches from Birmingham, Alabama and Memphis, Tennessee in the West to Raleigh in the East. As a whole, the Piedmont Atlantic Megaregion has a population of over 25 million people. It includes Interstates 40 and 85 and encompasses several major cities interconnected through a major backbone of transportation connectivity. We must engage our region.
I have also wanted to see passenger rail service reinstituted from Asheville to Salisbury with a stop in our area. Gabriel, we are not alone in wanting to see this happen. Locally, our State Representative Jay Adams promoted the idea of renovating the Caldwell County rail line. This would have gone a long way towards redeveloping the sub-corridor that runs from Hickory to Lenoir. If not renovated through rail, the line could be paved and a tram could be run along that path. It could also become associated as an artery for open greenspace pedestrian and bicycle travel.
As far as encouraging industry and people to become a part of our area, we must look at what we are presently and honestly accept the reality – no buzzwords, no catchphrases, no propaganda. I believe we have failed our young people in this community. Area leadership must be willing to open their minds to possibilities, accept people for who they are, be willing to engage and work well with others, and then decide where we want to be in 5, 10, 25 years… Then develop a plan accordingly with detailed steps, transparent processes, benchmarks, and accountability measures to move us towards our objectives.