Local leaders have mixed reaction to Toronto article
By Elizabeth Cook
A Canadian newspaper shone a harsh light on the Rowan County economy recently, spurring reaction on both sides of the border.
Headlined ěTough times: Life inside the hardest hit county in the U.S.,î the Nov. 15 story in Torontoís Globe and Mail said Rowan had morphed from a blue-collar county into an unemployed one.
Even Canadians found it depressing.
ěVery sad, but somewhat predictable,î said one of the more than 300 comments on the story. Many blamed the movement of manufacturing jobs to Asia.
The Globe and Mail story has rippled through Rowan County via email and Facebook. While some regard it as a piece of negative reporting, others found it eye-opening.
Kyna Foster, executive director of Rowan Helping Ministries, said she knew the recession had hurt the community; she deals with the effects every day. Thatís why Globe and Mail reporter Sonia Verma interviewed her for the story.
But Foster said she had not thought Rowanís experience was any different from other counties ó until she read Vermaís story asserting otherwise.
ěThis article really put in perspective the challenge we face now and for the future rebuilding of our countyís economic success,î Foster said.
ěI love Rowan County and want to see us solve this problem together so that my future grandchildren will be proud to call Rowan County home óworking and living here.î
Verma said she chose Rowan County after looking at the most recent American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. 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 percentage of families living below the poverty line rose from 8.9 percent to 17.9 percent, and median household income fell from $49,175 to $37,360.
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.
Rowan County seemed to fit the bill.
The fact that stimulus projects and other federal initiatives did not appear to have improved Rowanís situation ó despite President Barack Obamaís promises of hope and change ó fit the storyís approach to the 2012 presidential election.
Is Rowanís situation really more dire than most?
Mayor Pro Tem Susan Kluttz has asked city staff to research the issue. She and others say they have seen worse economic conditions in other parts of the state and nation.
For example, Scotland County had an unemployment rate of 16.6 percent in October, compared to Rowanís 10.7 percent. Yuma, Ariz., had a jobless rate of 26.3 percent.
So some are confounded by the Globe and Mail headlineís reference to Rowan as ěthe hardest hit county in the U.S.î
The story qualified that assertion. ěRowan County is not the poorest in America,î Verma wrote, ěbut it is among those that have experienced the most stunning loss during Barack Obamaís first term.î
County Commissioner Carl Ford is among those questioning the report. He noted in an email to the Post that the only N.C. counties with better bond ratings from Fitch Ratings are Wake and Mecklenburg. ěAnd the Canadian article said we were the hardest hit county in the US?î Ford wrote.
Fitch assigned an AA rating for Rowan governmentís bonds, noting the countyís consistently ělarge operating reservesî and ěprudent internal fiscal policies.î
Despite declines in 2009 and 2010, Fitch said, the county had a $30.1 million unreserved general fund balance and another $8.8 million in receivables ó all told, reserves that amount to nearly 31 percent of annual spending.
The Fitch report expressed optimism about Rowan, saying ěrecent investments by the countyís largest employers provide a positive outlook for future job growth.î
Robert Van Geons, head of the countyís economic development agency, Rowan Works, also sees positive signs of growth among local employers. Companies recently awarded incentive grants by the county ó such as Boral Composites, Magna, Henkel and Norandal ó are fulfilling their hiring promises, he said. After retooling, Freightliner is now rolling out military trucks.
ěWeíve taken some hits, thereís no doubt about that,î Van Geons said. But the county has a resilient populace and good worker retraining programs, he said, making the overall economic situation better than that described in the Canadian newspaper report.
Missing in the Globe and Mail storyís broad strokes and political analysis were many of the positives about Rowan County and Salisbury, said Kluttz, whom Verma also interviewed for the story.
Chief among those omissions in Kluttzí view was Fibrant, the cityís year-old broadband network. City Council started planning the project before the recession hit, but the city was already dealing with the loss of manufacturing jobs.
ěWe understood the fact that we needed to be doing something about the economy and the job losses here,î said Kluttz, who was mayor at the time. ěThatís why we started studying broadband. … We made a very bold decision.î
Salisbury is a leader in the state in municipal broadband and has been nationally recognized for its network, Kluttz said. But the Globe and Mail story made it sound as though the city was doing nothing.
Kluttz said the story miscast local preservation efforts, making it sound as though Salisburians wanted to live in the past. Emphasizing preservation does not mean the city is not forward-looking, she said. Preservation can be an economic development tool.
Other plusses that Verma missed (or dismissed) in Kluttzí eyes included retraining efforts at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and the tradition of generous giving here that enabled The Norvell Theatre to open and made this fallís United Way campaign a success.
All that being said, though, Kluttz said that more action is needed to counter the effects of poverty and to attract jobs.
ěWhat do we do to reinvent ourselves? Thatís what weíre looking at. … Are we doing enough with the county to recruit business? Does the city need to do more?î
Kluttz is concerned about the effects of poverty and hunger on children.
She doesnít know what the solution is, she said, but she prefers to keep looking rather than get stalled on discouragement.
ěMy feeling is that pessimism doesnít help you. Youíve got to continue to be optimistic and to believe thereís something out there and keep looking for it.î
Jeanie Moore, a vice president at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, also talk with the Globe and Mail reporter. She was disappointed Verma did not include her interviews with displaced workers who are making progress toward degrees in automotive technology and welding at RCCC.
Rowan has indeed been severely affected by the recession, Moore said. ěHowever, there are still employers who tell us that they cannot find skilled workers. Education and training are still essential to finding a job ….î
In addition to industry-specific skills, Moore says employers find people lacking in soft skills in oral and written communication, customer service and teamwork. The workplace is changing. People need more problem-solving and critical thinking skills and less fear of new technology.
ěMy hope was that the Globe and Mail article would inspire our citizens to support education and lifelong learning and realistically look at career options and help them assess what they are willing to do to improve their personal opportunities and opportunities for others.î
People who are waiting for their old jobs to return or for new jobs with comparable wages ó without doing anything to polish their work skills ó will find fewer and fewer opportunities, Moore said.
But she, too, warned against dwelling on negatives.
ěWe also need to tell the story of what is working in our community, what is good, what is special,î she said. ěIf we constantly focus on the negative and the gloom and doom, we may very well continue to decline.î