In time of economic uncertainty, city retreat’s focus turns beyond where to spend money

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Mark Wineka
As Salisbury city officials gathered Thursday morning for the start of their annual goal-setting retreat, they entered under a large sign that carried a Biblical message for the times:
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
The line from Proverbs fit much of the discussion at the Rowan Museum.
Salisbury City Council and the city’s management team agreed the tough economy, in which the news seems to worsen every day, calls for action, not inaction.
In city government, it’s not time to park the car and take the next year or two off, City Manager David Treme said. Rather, the city should be planting seeds and acting on faith, he said.
Treme presented each City Council member with a small seedling in a pot as a symbol that council will be planting seeds this year for a future harvest.
“I think this is a time of encouragement,” Treme said. “… I think we’re a people of faith for the most part. We need to press on.”
Salisbury usually dedicates its retreat to new initiatives ó ideas that usually cost money.
But Mayor Susan Kluttz said this year is different. For one, “We don’t have any money,” she said.
The 2009 retreat focus has to be on how the city reacts to the current recession and how it uses the community’s resources to help improve lives, the mayor said.
“Our responsibility as a city is to give people hope that things will be better,” Kluttz said.
Councilman Bill Burgin said the fact that the city is starting out from a tough spot doesn’t mean it can’t do better.
“This is the year of jobs,” Burgin said. “We talk about a recession. If you lost your job, folks, you’re in a depression.”
Issues such as housing, crime and loss of tax base will become even bigger problems if people aren’t working, Burgin said.
Kluttz said the city has two choices ó either sit things out or do something.
“Frankly, I don’t think we have a choice,” she said.
By the end of Thursday, Kluttz and the others especially favored one of the recommendations that surfaced recently from a three-hour community leader workshop. Among other things, the group recommended a “Salisbury-Rowan Recovery Summit.”
Kluttz said the city has successfully organized initiatives in the past that have made a difference, such as forming the non-profit Salisbury Community Development Corp., Project SAFE and the more recent Gang Summit, which led to initiatives for youth.
“We have done it before,” Kluttz said, adding that the city and county should work on staging a recovery summit together.
If the county doesn’t want to participate, “we have to do it anyway,” Kluttz said.
Council heard Thursday from two members of the community leader focus group: Bob Lippard, director of the Rowan County United Way, and Robert Van Geons, executive director of the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission.
The leadership group concluded that there must be a coordinated public campaign to do two things:
– Connect the people in need with the agencies that can provide support.
– Connect people in the community who can help with support services that are stretched thin and will need assistance to continue their work.
Lippard said the community, as reflected by its history, has an “incredible work ethic.”
“We don’t start in the negative, we start with a great positive,” Lippard said.
When Pillowtex closed in 2003 putting thousands out of work in Rowan and Cabarrus counties, the community worked through it with collaborations that are being called on again, Lippard said.
Van Geons said a “public collaboration campaign” will have to do things such as supply citizens with information, coordinate related services and partnerships, call on existing resources, use public service announcements and hold a recovery summit.
“There’s a large storm of negative news out there, some of it justified,” Van Geons said.
But efforts can be made to share positive stories, too, he said. A passive, wait-and-see strategy from city leaders will not ease the burden on their citizens, Van Geons warned.
Sometimes cities fail to see the “joys, blessings and resources” they already possess that can be used in tough times, Treme said.
“Our attitude often determines our outcome,” he said.