Survey calls for unity; leaders say results show forum not ‘Salisbury-centric’

SALISBURY — Economic development officials and leaders from across Rowan County sang the praises of a recent community forum and said survey results show participants’ desire and directive to work together across political lines and municipal boundaries.

However, several people at Wednesday’s RowanWorks Economic Development Commission board meeting also expressed frustration about efforts to paint the day-long community forum as only about Salisbury.

The March 6 forum, which attracted more than 200 people, was great, Granite Quarry Mayor Bill Feather said. But Feather said he is disappointed that some are characterizing the event as “Salisbury-centric.”

“It has been taken and sold that way by some people,” Feather said. “We need to make it clear that this is county-wide.”

Feather said some candidates for Rowan County commission and a conservative blog have been “skewing” the event.

Pete Teague, chairman of the EDC board, said the survey results can best combat that characterization.

“The results totally deny that it was Salisbury-centric thing,” Teague said. “That is just not the case.”

The survey sent out by forum organizers — mainly the EDC, Rowan County Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Salisbury Inc. — received 114 responses, a rate that EDC Executive Director Robert Van Geons said was unprecedented. Participants were asked to list Rowan County’s top assets, come up with a vision for the community and name things the community should start doing and stop doing.

While responses varied greatly, several themes emerged, Van Geons said.

“People want to come together,” said Jim Greene, an EDC board member who is running for county commission. “They are saying we need to come together.”

Respondents repeatedly used words likes “collaboration,” “cooperation” and “coordination” and found several different ways to say that elected officials need to stop fighting and starting working together.

Organizers plan to host more events following up on the forum, and Greene suggested they take place outside of Salisbury to help show that the effort is county-wide.

Salisbury City Councilman Brian Miller said people who organized the event had no idea what responses they would receive.

“Our whole intent was to get data, to come around the table to say, ‘What do we do with this? How do we move this forward?’ “ Miller said.

Critics who claimed the results were a foregone conclusion did not understand of the process, he said.

Van Geons confirmed that the name and address of someone who claimed to have attended the forum and then criticized the event online did not appear on the registration list. City Manager Doug Paris said the name was made up.

“It is ironic that one of the biggest things that came out of the forum is that the divide-and-conquer mentality needs to cease,” Paris said. “And that is the exact behavior that is being used to undermine and belittle the event.”

People left the event so enthusiastic that they are anxious for follow-up, Miller said. But it will take some time for organizers to figure out the reasonable next steps and prepare the framework for future meetings, he said.

“If you don’t see an event in the next three months, that doesn’t meant that something is not happening,” Miller said.

Van Geons said they may try to organize future meetings in such a way that people interested in certain areas — downtown, education, economic development or entrepreneurism for example — could follow their passions.

The forum included elected leaders from seven municipalities and Rowan County and representatives from nearly every education system in the county. The event was intended to solicit ideas and create energy, not build consensus, Van Geons said.

“There were no right or wrong answers,” he said.

Now that organizers have data, they can start to find common interests and desires, he said.

“It was designed to be a major first step in this community, and I think we did that,” Van Geons said. “There is no way in one day that we will answer that question that has eluded us for quite a long time.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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