Steve Blount: Solving our community’s problems
Motivated to comment on community issues, I found it disturbingly easy to make jokes about the actions and inactions of our current crop of elected officials. But at the insistence of my wife, editor, and favorite school teacher, I’ll write about serious solutions to our community’s problems instead.
First, you don’t recruit national retail stores and restaurants to your community. These sophisticated businesses and the smaller companies that follow their lead study community demographics, looking for profitable places to build their next stores. When our population density and disposable income levels rise to their preferred levels they will come to our community but not before. No incentives or inducements will change that fact.
Second, attracting high-end, advanced manufacturing companies with their high paying jobs and tax base — and the support businesses that will follow — to our community requires more long-term community development than the quick and easy economic development policies of financial incentives, cheap land deal and a marginally lower property tax rate.
There are many important parts to community development including the concrete ones like adequate utilities and infrastructure, an educated and motivated workforce, and available buildings. Our community leaders seem to understand these parts and are working in this area as evidenced by our airport’s new multiuse hanger and proposed runway extension.
There are also the more nebulous but just as important parts of community development, though, such as a public image of political stability, progressive leadership, and support for our public education system. These areas of community development have been blemished by controversial lawsuits over prayer, cuts in school funding leading to mediation, and unreasonable opposition to an office building that could have met a longtime need of our school system while helping improve our county seat, the economic development face of our community.
A second but certainly related area of community concern is our public education system. At a time when global competition for new businesses and the best jobs requires that our education system accomplish more, our leaders at the local, state and national levels are right to look for a better approach and to impose higher standards in our schools. They need to back up those concerns, however, with more resources, not less. They must attract better teachers to the profession and retain them with more support, basic respect, job security and higher pay opportunities instead of cuts to the same and more. They need to support productive changes to our system proven in other modern nations like longer school days, a year-round calendar, and even more use of technology instead of with forays into unworkable student performance-based teacher accountability plans and mandated cursive writing classes.
A successful local education system is the cornerstone of any community’s success as measured by crime rates, per capita income, unemployment levels, or through economic development success stories. Some of our local leaders rightly point a finger of blame at our state government for not adequately funding our schools, forcing a larger share of that responsibility onto the local taxpayer’s shoulders.
This could also be an opportunity, though. By working with the school system’s leadership to create an ambitious plan for educational success at the local level (anyone remember the Class of 1999 Plan?) and then stepping up with adequate support to make that plan a reality, our community could leap ahead of our economic development competition, actually lowering local tax bills in the long run. But maybe I’ve digressed again into writing silly jokes.
Related to these two issues and the other problems facing our community are the realities that their solutions won’t be simple, they can’t be approached in a knee-jerk fashion, and solutions won’t be found in anecdotal evidence. Addressing major community issues requires facts, expert advice and public input leading to clearly defined goals, a long term strategy, short term action plans and earned community support.
Without a plan to follow we become rudderless, bouncing down the river with no real direction, leaving our fate in the hands of others. A well-thought-out and crafted strategic plan would help keep our community from crashing from shore to shore every four years or so as the political winds change. While not easy, planning is cheap when compared with the cost of failure. And instead of guessing where our citizens want this community to go, or worse, substituting a few individuals’ agendas for true public opinion, we could find consensus instead of creating further division as we move forward into an uncertain future together.
Steve Blount is a former member and chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.