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Editorial: Beyond incentives

Mark Sweeney, the nationally known site selection consultant who visited Salisbury last week, mentioned several ways a community can position itself to attract jobs besides offering sometimes-controversial tax breaks.
And get this ó Salisbury-Rowan has already embraced many of them. This community may be better off than many residents realize. They’re too close to it.
Sweeney told the story of a group of executives narrowing their short list of prospective sites for a new plant. Arriving at one small town, they drove by derelict-looking buildings before crossing a Depression-era bridge and arriving at the town square. They saw closed businesses and a downtown that was not well-kept. At that point, before talking to local officials or seeing the site, the top executive leaned over to Sweeney and said, “This is not the site for our company.”
Any industry that has Rowan County on its short list and visits Salisbury will find an attractive downtown where little is left to chance, from lighting and bridges to storefronts and sidewalks. The central business district has a thriving mix of restaurants, shops and offices ó a sign of progress that reflects on all of Rowan County. Beyond, in both city and county, quality of life is reflected in well-kept parks, preserved historic structures, a strong network of public libraries and YMCAs, active arts groups and thriving colleges.
But just as sometimes we don’t appreciate what we have, over time we become blind to areas that need improvement: the county fairgrounds, the school system’s headquarters, the airport. Summit Corporate Center could use sprucing up. And, lest anyone forget, the I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River ó a gateway to the Charlotte region ó reflects poorly on the entire state.
To keep improving for prospects and for current residents, the community must address those areas and push forward on initiatives already underway or about to be, such as ongoing improvements in public education and the city’s proposed fiber-to-home project. And through it all, we have to keep in mind that small towns look like high risks to prospective industries. Will they be able to fill their jobs? What will turnover be like? And will any of their executives want to live here? According to Sweeney, smart towns need to bill themselves as part of a broader metropolitan area with a large labor pool and greater amenities. So instead of distancing ourselves from Charlotte, Salisbury needs to build on regional partnerships and tout Charlotte’s NFL team, for example. Grabbing the coattails of Kannapolis and the N.C. Research Campus would probably be a good idea, too.
The Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission, the Ketner School of Business and sponsors of this event made a good investment in bringing in Sweeney. After years of talking about what site selection consultants look for, they gave politicians and business leaders a chance to get the message from the horse’s mouth. Economic incentives are a must-have, but consultants and executives weigh many other factors too. Offering incentives alone is not enough.

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