By Karissa Minn
THOMASVILLE — Gov. Bev Perdue told small town leaders Wednesday morning that she wants to help their economies recover and thrive in the wake of the recession.
During Wednesday’s forum at Davidson County Community College in Thomasville, Perdue gave a brief introduction before taking questions from some of the 200 or so gathered officials.
“I want to hear your stories. … We’re here to ask you to tell us about agriculture, or about manufacturing, or about what you need to help your community,” Perdue said.
Cooleemee Mayor Lynn Rumley said her Davie County town needs help with a big economic development project.
Rumley said Cooleemee is beginning design work for renovations of the town’s old cotton mill, which closed in 1969. The goal is to turn it into a mixed-use development with residential apartments, commercial shops and maybe even light industry.
The 10-year project would cost $60 million to $80 million and potentially create 500 jobs, she said. But it’s about two years away from being “shovel-ready,” so it doesn’t qualify for many federal or state grants that could help fund it.
Rumley thanked Perdue for the state’s new tax credit program for the rehabilitation of old cotton mills.
She went on to ask that the state promote tourism in the Piedmont — not just the beaches and mountains.
Rumley, who is also the director of the Textile Heritage Center in Cooleemee, said communities from Virginia to Alabama are ready to form a Southern Textile Heritage Corridor that would boost tourism in the region.
“I know that the textile industry wasn’t the American revolution or the Civil War,” she said. “But there wouldn’t be a bank in Charlotte today if it hadn’t been for textiles.”
Perdue responded that Rumley’s question has been brought to her before, and it’s a legitimate concern.
“We’ve heard that we haven’t done a good job branding this middle part of the state,” she said. “We do want to build out these tourism corridors, because it helps the overall economy of the state.”
The event was the second in a series of three regional Governor’s Forums on Small Town Competitiveness, designed to promote the competitiveness and economic development capacity of small towns in North Carolina.
Those who spoke brought up a variety of issues, including jobs — both gained and lost — business regulations, economic development grants and local cooperation.
The governor referred several questions to representatives from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the N.C. Department of Commerce and the Golden LEAF Foundation.
She also spoke about the North Carolina Rural Development Center. Its North Carolina Small Towns Economic Prosperity Program (NC STEP) provides coaching, training, planning and grants to help support economic development in small towns.
Granite Quarry Mayor Mary Ponds and Town Manager Dan Peters said they came to the forum to learn about resources and information that could be helpful to the town.
“Granite Quarry is in a unique position because of our closeness with Salisbury,” Ponds said. “They keep using the term ‘rural,’ but we’re not really there.”
Peters said the town can take advantage of some of the state’s resources, but only when it has projects developed and ready to go. Granite Quarry is working with its planning and zoning staff to start looking at those opportunities, he said.
Several people brought up concerns Wednesday about high unemployment rates after the economic recession and and outsourcing.
The governor said the future outlook may be changing.
“The good news is we’re getting some industries back,” Perdue said. “The bad news is they’re leaner and meaner. The skill sets required are more sophisticated.”
She said today’s manufacturing is more likely to involve automation — creating fewer jobs — and advanced technology like robotics. Perdue also stressed the importance of training North Carolina workers for these industries.
Jim Misenheimer, mayor of Richfield, had a different concern. He said many Stanly County residents are frustrated with an ongoing conflict between the county and Alcoa.
Alcoa wants another license to operate four dams on the Yadkin River, which it has been operating using short-term licenses since its 50-year license expired in 2007.
Stanly County is challenging the company’s relicensing effort in court, citing environmental and other concerns. Alcoa now says long-term control of the dams would help it bring in a business that would provide hundreds of jobs.
“Please lean on these folks to seriously sit down and negotiate,” Misenheimer said. “Let’s get some jobs to the Piedmont of North Carolina.”
Perdue replied that Stanly County commissioners asked her office to help bring the parties together, and that has led to discussions in Raleigh.
But it’s up to the commissioners to decide what to do, she said, because the state can’t override the county’s legal objection to Alcoa’s water quality certificate.
Both Stanly County and Perdue have supported the creation of a state trust to take ownership of the Yadkin Hydroelectic Project, but on Wednesday, the governor simply said she’s hoping the two sides will reach an agreement soon.
“We are trying to move it along,” Perdue said. “I’m very hopeful that both Alcoa and the commissioners understand the whole issue. It’s not just about control of the water bed but also economic development.”
Also in attendance Wednesday were Mary Rittling, president of Davidson County Community College, and Rep. Fred Steen, who represents part of Rowan County in the N.C. General Assembly.
Earlier this month, Perdue held a forum at Martin Community College in Williams-ton. She will hold another one at Haywood Community College in Clyde on Oct. 6.
Perdue said Wednesday that state officials will prioritize and address the issues brought up in the forums.
She said the commerce department has created a statewide problem-solving line called Community Link North Carolina, which gives information about local economic development resources.
Online resources are available at www.nccommerce. com/clnc and the toll-free number is 855-473-6333.
By Karissa Minn