Our economic past and future
By David Post
Sometimes you get lucky. Or unlucky. Rowan County was recently selected by the Globe and Mail, an international newspaper based in Toronto, as a county to study the effects of globalization and the economic struggle in the United States. Of all the counties, it picked Rowan. Why?
Sonia Verma, one of its business reporters, examined a number of economic distress signals for U.S. counties, such as percentage increase in unemployment, declines in income and increases in poverty. With two congressmen, one from each political party, the dart hit us.
Rowan County is not experiencing more economic distress than other counties in the nation, but the change has been so noticeable in several categories.
Somehow I was on her list of people to talk to, and I offered to give her a quick tour of Salisbury.
When we met, I gave her a list of the largest employers in Rowan County. Food Lion always comes to mind as the countyíslargest employer, but itís second. The Rowan Salisbury School System is the largest. In fact, despite being a predominantly Republican county with a political philosophy of reducing government, seven of the nine largest employers in Rowan County are the government.
We started out with whatís good about Salisbury.
We wandered down Fulton and Ellis streets, which were bursting with color on a crisp autumn day where she saw the work Historic Salisbury Foundation has done for 40 years, preserving and protecting homes. We talked about how its efforts had increased tax values for entire neighborhoods.
I showed her how Downtown Salisbury Inc. had improved both the look and vibrancy of our center city. We drove down East Council Street, ěBrickî Street and Depot Street, by the Trolley Barn and the Waterworks art gallery, the Meroney and Norvell theaters, and talked about how those areas and buildings had improved so much.
We drove by Catawba and Livingstone colleges where the Ketners, Hurleys, Stanbacks and Robertsons have made such significant contributions to improve their campuses. I told her about Dr. Albert Aymer, who chose Hood Theological Seminary over Yale and grew it tenfold.
We went through some lower income neighborhoods, where she was impressed with how clean and neat they are, and then hit the tough stuff. Cone Mills once employed more than 600 people and was the largest user of water in the city. For 10 years, it has stood quietly, abandoned.
Cannon Mills No. 7, also closed over 10 years ago and, surrounded by approximately 70 mill homes, once employed several hundred people. Her photographerís picture angle made it look like some of the most downtrodden areas in the country ó a slab of concrete and 10-foot piles of rubble locked inside a chain link fence
She asked me, ěAre these jobs ever going to come back?î I surprised her and said, ěI hope they donít.î Why not?
We need smart jobs, not minimum wage textile or furniture jobs. Textile and furniture manufacturing nurture low wages and an uneducated workforce. When I practiced law in the 1970s, I had a case involving a textile mill that had dozens of 6-foot looms on a dirty, grimy floor. If a thread broke, the loom stopped, the operator fixed it and pulled a lever to restart the loom. (That lever injured my client.) In addition, one repairman was assigned to every six looms. Ten years later, I was involved with another textile mill where the looms were 75 feet long on a floor clean enough to eat on and operated by one person. A laser beam pointed to broken threads that were marked for later repair and the operator hit a button to restart the machine. One person replaced seven and did so more efficiently. And that was 20 years ago.
I asked her if she had seen the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis. She asked what that was, so she added it to her schedule and we went. I said, ěThis is what tomorrow needs to look like.î
The N.C. Research Campus sits on a pastoral setting in Kannapolis where 6,000,000 square feet of Cannon Mills used to stand. It employs research scientists from industry and universities around the state who are studying how nutrition, agriculture and biotechnology can be merged to prevent, treat and cure disease while raising the standards of health.
Itís only 3 years old, unfortunately breaking ground at the beginning of the current economic decline. It has 300 employees and three buildings but has visions of 6,000 employees working across a campus of almost 50 buildings.
Is that possible? Fifty years ago, the Research Triangle Park was a pasture.
Those are the jobs we need.
In 20 years, maybe Sonia Verma will examine U.S. counties with a common economic thread and discover a vibrant, educated, high paying workforce in Rowan County.
We need to get lucky. But we need to remember that good luck is the residue of effort.
David Post is executive director of Historic Salisbury Foundation and co-owner of the Salisbury Pharmacy.