Editorial: Rowan’s plan to succeed?
The closing of a major textile manufacturer hit the rural community like a gut punch, a blow soon worsened by the recession. Joblessness spiked, spirits lagged. The low point came when outside media highlighted the community as excelling in high poverty rates and low education attainment. The 21st century economy was about to run over the county, it appeared — until leaders united around and successfully executed an economic development plan.
Except for the planning aspect, the story above could be about Rowan County after Pillowtex shut down. But the area described is Lancaster County, S.C. After 120 years of making textiles there, Springs Global closed its plants in 2007. As recently reported in the Charlotte Business Journal, Forbes magazine declared Lancaster the nation’s No. 1 most vulnerable town, with 20 percent of its residents at or below the poverty level and only 18.6 percent of the workforce with an associate’s degree or higher.
That number showed up again — 18.6 percent — as Lancaster County hit its peak rate of unemployment. Joblessness and the Forbes article awakened Lancaster’s county and municipal leaders, according to Keith Tunnell, president of Lancaster County Economic Development Corp. “They said, ‘Do what you have to do to put people back to work,’ ” Tunnell told the Business Journal. The result was increased funding for economic development, creation of an endowment for constructing spec buildings and Lancaster’s first economic development plan.
Since then, Lancaster County has gained almost 3,500 jobs and seen unemployment fall to 7.9 percent. Red Ventures, an Internet marketing firm, moved in from Charlotte. Keer America Corp., a subsidiary of a Chinese textile firm, recently announced it will bring 500 more jobs.
Rowan County has had its economic wake-up moments, too, also underscored by news reports. In November 2011, a Canadian newspaper focused on Rowan in a story headlined, “Hard times: Life inside the hardest hit county in the U.S.” Wall Street 24/7 last year listed Salisbury among the 10 cities in the nation where the poverty rate is growing fastest.
Those stories and growing awareness that Rowan is getting left behind have sparked a sense of urgency among local business leaders. Rowan went through an ambitious planning and visioning process several years ago, in 1996-97. Elections brought change, however — words like “community” and “sustainable” are red flags to some voters — and the plan was shelved. How’s that working for us? Not too well.
There should be lessons we can learn from Lancaster’s success. The most important aspect of that county’s approach was that local leaders were in agreement. They knew their county and city needed more jobs and believed they should do something about it. That’s the proactive approach Rowan County needs — a can-do attitude about improving the economy and people working as a team together to do it.