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Cook: Let's brainstorm about Rowan's future

Let’s look past the negative image that came across in the Toronto Globe and Mail’s recent story about Rowan County.
No number of positive points can change the fact that poverty has escalated here, as it has virtually everywhere. Maybe Rowan isn’t all that different from everyone else. Maybe it is. Either way, we are here, and this is the community we are vested in.
How are we going to wage our own guerrilla war on poverty?
As every county in the nation looks for ways to set itself apart and improve the local economy, what could Rowan do to be different and lift more boats?
I started thinking about this after reading Sonia Verma’s story about Rowan. In the very last paragraph, I’m quoted as saying Rowan may never return to its former glory, wealthwise. “We’d like to think we’re still in the middle of everything,” I said, “but maybe we’re actually in the middle of nowhere.”
Sorry to sound so grim. I stunned myself when I read that. But the heady days when Food Lion was growing faster than Microsoft are behind us, and as is the textile industry’s heyday.
As then-Mayor Susan Kluttz said in the story, we have to re-set. And part of that re-setting involves brainstorming — something we all have the power to do. Our elected leaders work on this all the time. It’s our turn.
Assume existing economic development programs would continue. What additional steps could we take?
For starters, we can look into the Nemours Bright Start! program that Francis Koster describes in his “Optimistic Futurist” column on page 1D today. Preventing teens from dropping out of school would go a long way toward decreasing poverty.
Here are some other ideas that crossed my mind — more like scattershot than silver bullets. They may all be duds. Please, come up with better ideas and share them.
Send your ideas along and we’ll publish a list. Here’s mine so far:
• Hire a city economic developer to do what Downtown Salisbury Inc. Executive Director Randy Hemann has done for the downtown area — actively manage the promotion and development of the city. This would complement the work of the economic development agency, Rowan Works.
• Coordinate the pick-up and distribution of excess produce from local farms to families in need — as well as the distribution of local produce to local restaurants.
• Up the ante on economic incentives by doubling them for homegrown companies that want to expand. They have the biggest commitment to stay here and give the greatest payback to the community.
• Recruit a charter school organization to take over or supplement our most challenged schools, such as Knox Middle, to try different learning models and administrative structures. I have a bias; one of our daughters works for the Knowledge is Power Program — KIPP. I am not trying to get her a job; she has a good one. But I’d like to see at-risk students here have the opportunity to learn in the intensive, “no shortcuts” KIPP environment.
• Erect a sign, monument or other high-profile structure at the I-85/Yadkin River Bridge entrance into Rowan County to make people aware that they are entering a special place, a place where learning never stops.
• Embrace and advertise the simple life. We don’t have as many big-box stores or high incomes as neighboring counties. These supposed weaknesses might be a strength — making this a community where quality of life is not measured by what you can buy but by what you can do: eat local food, stroll trails, ride bikes along scenic byways, take in (and participate in) the arts, spend time with family and friends instead of stuck in traffic.
• Promote the West Innes area near Catawba as a lively community of locally owned eating establishments, like the bricked-street area of East Fisher, but without the bricks. (Restaurants in the vicinity include Castaways, College Barbecue, DJ’s, Hendrix Barbecue, L.A. Murph’s, Osaka, The Palms, Mykonos Grill, Zaki’s, and — when it rebounds from last week’s fire — Romano’s.)
• Offer public school students a cash incentive to graduate with good grades. One proposal floated in the legislature this year would have paid students $1,000 per year of good grades and good behavior — payable upon graduation. That sounds exorbitant, but what incentive might motivate the unmotivated?
• Provide birth control — or at least birth control information — to young women ages 16-25 (with parental approval for those under 18) who say they are sexually active. I offer this idea with great trepidation. I’m not advocating moral downfall. But let’s be realistic. The schools’ abstinence-only approach to sex education does little to help young women avoid pregnancy.
• Set lifelong learning as a community theme — through media campaigns, fair exhibits and special events. See if a charitable foundation would be willing to encourage everyone to go back to school for something — working with spreadsheets, mastering a new language, fixing a leaky pipe — by offering scholarships.
• Step up adult literacy and English-speaking skills by expanding the work of the Rowan Literacy Council and Rowan Public Library.
• Promote and make communitywide use of the many college instructors who live and work here through special events — a literary festival, a history symposium, a small-business conference.
Enough. Maybe there’s a seed of something worthwhile here — even if it’s just to inspire others to show they have better ideas.
• • •
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post. Reach her at editor@salisburypost.com or 704-797-4244.

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