Cook: A reporter, Rowan and the recession

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 5, 2011

Reporter Sonia Verma used words like ělovelyî and ěgorgeousî when she reflected on her visit to Salisbury and Rowan County.
But ěheartbreakingî echoed in the conversation too.
A reporter for Canadaís national newspaper, the Globe and Mail in Toronto, Verma traveled to Salisbury early last week to profile a U.S. community the recession has hit hard.
Amid the homeless shelterís austerity and great need, she talked to people who had lost their jobs ó not just once, but two or three times.
Amid the N.C. Research Campusí exquisite marble and cutting-edge technology in Kannapolis, she learned the project has created hundreds of jobs ó but people had dreamed of thousands.
And she took in the charms of Salisbury as a small Southern city where, she told me Friday, ěthe life that people once had is just not there.î
But Salisbury has some advantages, she said, including the philanthropy of its wealthier citizens. In other communities, ěthose kinds of safety nets are not around.î

Why Rowan? The recession has scarred virtually every county in the country. Why did Verma focus on Rowan?
When I asked, she pulled out pages from the American Community Survey, the same census report that spurred recent stories in the Post about escalating poverty.
According to the report, the percentage of Rowan residents living in poverty nearly doubled from 2007 to 2010, going from 11 percent to 21 percent.
The same goes for the percentage of families living below the poverty line, rising from 8.9 percent to 17.9 percent, with median household income falling from $49,175 to $37,360.
Those three economic indicators tell a powerful story ó more powerful than Rowan residents may realize.
Verma said she could have gone to any number of impoverished counties to see how much worse off they were after the recession. Her mission, though, was to find a community that was doing OK and got knocked down by the recession.
That would be Rowan. The local economy wasnít booming in 2008, five years after losing thousands of jobs with the closing of Pillowtex, but the shock had worn off.
Then came the great unraveling.
Count Rowan among the nationís communities whose progress has been set seriously off course by the recession ó more seriously than most of the nation.
ěThe world has so completely changed,î Verma said. She found it heartbreaking to see how lovely Salisbury is, knowing the shortage of jobs the people here face.
Some communities fall on hard times and you wonder why anyone wanted to live there in the first place, Verma said. In Salisbury, she found a gorgeous place with friendly and warm people, and she wondered why anyone would want to leave. But they may have to, she said, to find jobs.
That is, if the area continues on its current course.

Verma is still working on her story and expects publication in a couple of weeks.
Whatever the article says, the fact that Rowan came to her attention sends a message all its own.
A reporter who was tweeting from Cairo in February and reported on Havana in September searched census data to find a struggling U.S. community and zeroed in on Rowan.
Some people will look at this as negative publicity. But Vermaís visit could also be an opportunity ó a call to arms ó to pull people together to work toward a solution.

I stammered when Verma asked what I thought would bring the county out of the downturn. Where will the jobs come from? I wish I knew.
Rowan has gotten out of scrapes before with extraordinary recruiting successes ó the V.A. Medical Center in the 1950s, Fiber Industry in the í60s, Freightliner in the late í80s.
Some of our best and most long-lived industries, though, were born and bred here.The wealth that Food Lion created ó in both jobs and stock value ó buoyed the community for decades. But the upward trajectory has plateaued; much of the Food Lion wealth has been spent or moved on, bringing attention back to the bare facts about Rowan. Education and income levels here trail our neighbors. Can we lift ourselves up by our bootstraps?

Searching for a parking space downtown Friday night to meet friends for dinner, I wondered about this tale of woe.
Small entrepreneurs continue to brave the economic chill ó opening restaurants, shops and design centers. Salisbury has done a lot to stay vibrant.
Life could be worse, but complacency is the enemy. We canít count on the same old tactics to achieve different results. And waiting for a new industry to come to the rescue could be, well, a long wait.
We need a revolution, a game changer. Have any ideas?

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.