Top 10: Economy top story in 2011

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 30, 2011

By Scott Jenkins
SALISBURY — In a September interview, Spencer resident Kevin Gaines estimated he’d submitted about 300 job applications since being let go from his job at Philip Morris in 2008.
“Everywhere I go, I stop and ask my friends, my family and people working in the stores, ‘Are you taking applications? Are you doing any hiring?’ ” Gaines said then.
“I’ve been trying to get my foot in the door anywhere, but a lot of companies are just not hiring.”
Not a lot of companies were hiring in 2011. The Rowan County jobless rate stayed firmly in double digits and above the statewide average all year as businesses continued to struggle in a weak a economy that technically exited recession in 2009 but still didn’t feel like it was in recovery.
Its profound effect on the people of Rowan County made the economy the top local news story of 2011, in a vote by the Post news staff.
Employers weren’t the only ones who were distressed.
Foreclosures continued at a torrid pace, piling up so fast that the Sheriff’s Office brought on another deputy to help serve civil notices.
And statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that one in five Rowan residents lived in poverty. That’s a huge leap from the 11.4 percent — just over one in 10 — who lived below the poverty line in 2007, the year the Great Recession began. And children fared even worse, with nearly one in four living in poverty.
But that’s just the official accounting of what local government agencies such as the Department of Social Services and nonprofits like Rowan Helping Ministries already knew — the poor were among us in greater numbers than we ever wanted to think possible.
Rowan Social Services Director Sandra Wilkes called it “just shocking” that nearly half of the county’s households were receiving public assistance of some sort.
The Rowan-Salisbury School System fed just over 60 percent of its students free or reduced-price lunches, up from around 50 percent in 2007.
And in a night shelter originally built to house men only, Rowan Helping Ministries had to set up a makeshift room for homeless families. In August, Cam Campbell, the nonprofit’s director of resource development, said that room had been used every night for a year and that more than 1,500 families who’d never walked through the doors at Rowan Helping Ministries came there asking for help.
“That just shows there are more children and families with this economy struggling,” Campbell said.
The other top stories of 2011, as chosen by the Post editorial staff, were:
2. Barber’s rough year
After admitting to alcoholism and vowing to get help in 2010 following accusations that he showed up drunk to his teaching job (he resigned the next day), Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber’s battle continued in 2011.
In October, a judge found Barber guilty of stealing a $2.99 bottle of Wild Irish Rose wine and drinking it in the men’s room at a convenience store. Barber had maintained his innocence, but the April incident was captured on the store’s surveillance camera.
When that judgment was handed down, Barber had already pleaded guilty, in August, to driving while impaired for the second time since 2008.
The latest DWI conviction stemmed from a May incident in which Barber wrecked his car in a ditch near N.C. 150.
He received probation in both cases.
Barber told the Post in May he was entering a “long-term inpatient rehabilitation program.” He missed two board meetings.
There were some calls from the community for Barber to step down from his seat on the county board, but other commissioners mostly held their tongues.
County Commissioner Jim Sides said in June that Barber “ought to do what’s right, but I’m not going to say what that is. I want him to try to get the help he needs.”
3. A year of transition
For Salisbury, it was a year of transition.
David Treme retired Aug. 1 after 25 years as city manager. Treme worked with three mayors and 22 City Council members. His knack for bringing together government and the private sector, identifying crucial projects and convincing elected officials to take risks helped revitalize downtown Salisbury, guaranteed the city a future water supply and more recently saw the launch of Fibrant, the city’s high-speed internet, television and phone service.
“He helped Salisbury, with our limited resources as a small city, act like a much bigger city,” former Mayor Margaret Kluttz said.
The City Council is searching for Treme’s successor. In the meantime, the board named Assistant City Manager Doug Paris its interim manager.
Treme’s wasn’t the only exit that made a big wave in Salisbury this year.
Susan Kluttz was finishing out her 14th year as mayor and seeking another when something happened that few could have expected, least of all the person on the other end of it happening.
In Salisbury, all five council seats are up for election every two years, and the board traditionally elects the top vote-getter as mayor for the upcoming term. For seven terms, that had been Kluttz.
But election night, all eyes were on Kluttz and Maggie Blackwell, who was just finishing up her first term and who some observers thought might edge out Kluttz for the top spot. At the end of the night, it appeared Kluttz had won that distinction again — until you looked farther down the ballot.
Paul Woodson, who was first elected to the council the same year as Kluttz, topped them both. He declared himself “stunned” and said a slate of challengers critical of the city’s Fibrant debt, its level of transparency, and its leaders’ accessibility, had simply forced him to campaign harder than he ever had, with surprising results.
“I came in here tonight hoping to get back on the council. I swear to you, ask my wife,” Woodson said election night. “I was just hoping to get back on the council.”
Woodson was sworn in as mayor Dec. 6
4. Don’t tread on them
Foes of involuntary annexation in Rowan County rejoiced in 2011 after the N.C. General Assembly enacted a law making it harder for cities and towns to take in residents outside their boundaries.
Allowing property owners to sign a petition blocking an annexation — and barring a town from trying again for three years — it was the broadest rewrite of the state’s involuntary annexation laws in more than half a century and brought victory to a group that included residents who had been battling Salisbury for several years.
Good Neighbors of Rowan County sprang up to oppose an attempted involuntary annexation of subdivisions along N.C. 150. Residents in that area successfully fought back the annexation attempt, then they became active in lobbying lawmakers for a permanent change to the state’s annexation laws.
Facing opposition from municipal and state governments, the Good Neighbors became a red-shirted presence at public hearings, on chartered buses to Raleigh where they attended legislative committee meetings and shadowed top lawmakers in the halls of the State House and Senate.
They raised $70,000 for their fight and found allies in other anti-annexation groups, county commissioners and legislators, and ultimately in the first Republican-controlled legislature in North Carolina in more than a century.
Carl Eagle, Good Neighbors vice president, neatly summed up the victory in an email to fellow annexation opponents after the N.C. House passed the bill in June.
He wrote: “Who says you can’t fight city hall?”
(Tie) 5. Alcoa’s rocky river
Despite trying a new approach, Alcoa Power Generating Inc. found the path to relicensing a series of electricity-generating dams and reservoirs along the Yadkin River remained full of obstacles in 2011.
Alcoa’s license to operate the dams expired in 2008. It has been operating them under a temporary license while seeking a new 50-year license since then.
The company began the year dealing with the late-2010 revocation of its state water quality certificate, a key component in its federal relicensing bid. State environmental officials said company emails showed Alcoa intentionally withheld information on the project’s ability to meet water quality standards. Alcoa said those emails were taken out of context and appealed the revocation.
Meanwhile, Alcoa began directly talking with state officials — some of whom wanted the state to take over the dams. The company also pledged to bring jobs to the Badin Works aluminum smelting plant it shut down in 2002 and make $10 million in improvements at the site to make it more attractive to other companies.
That, at least, seemed to work. Electronics Recyclers International announced it would locate at the Badin Works site and eventually employ up to 200 people there.
But then Alcoa announced a company called Clean Tech Silicon and Bar had agreed to spend $300 million turning the Badin Works site into a facility to make silicon and recycle steel. The company said its operation would create at least 450 direct and indirect jobs. There was a catch, however: Stanly County had to drop its opposition to Aloca’s relicensing.
Stanly commissioners didn’t budge, even with a Dec. 15 deadline hanging over their heads. Now the Clean Tech deal and its jobs are apparently going elsewhere, and Alcoa’s no closer to getting a new license approved.
(Tie) 5. Finally, a bridge
Gov. Bev Perdue, along with other state and local dignitaries, gathered on a Davidson County plot of land near the river in September 2010 to turn shovelfuls of dirt and proclaim the long-awaited construction of a new Interstate 85 bridge over the Yadkin River officially underway.
But for some residents on both sides of the river, and drivers from all over who’ve crossed the Yadkin on the 56-year-old twin spans AAA consistently ranks among the state’s most dangerous, it probably wasn’t fully believable until they saw the new bridge taking shape.
And that happened in 2011.
The new spans are part of a $200 million project to widen and realign I-85 in Rowan and Davidson counties and replace a total of eight bridges.
But the interstate bridge, which carries about 60,000 vehicles a day, is without question the project’s centerpiece.
N.C. Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti said in January the project had been “overdue for years.”
First, construction crews with joint venture Flatiron-Lane built a temporary bridge from which they could work on the new permanent bridges. Then local observers and anyone driving past on the existing I-85 bridges watched as columns rose from the Yadkin, supporting steel girders and concrete surface.
By mid-December, construction crews had moved enough dirt to fill nearly 3,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools and poured more than 15,000 tons of concrete. And they had completed the bridge’s foundation. One of the two new spans will be opened for traffic in a few months.
Adam Mathews, project manager with contractor Flatiron-Lane, said northbound traffic will be moved off the old I-85 bridge by the end of March.
“By next summer, none of the traffic will be on there,” Matthews said of the nearly six-decade-old structure. “It will all be on the new bridge.”
7. The central office quest continues
There seems to always be a new wrinkle in the Rowan-Salisbury School System’s quest for a central office.
For years, school system leaders have said they need to consolidate the operations now scattered in various locations, including an 88-year-old former school in East Spencer that school system officials say is unsafe and needs $2 million in improvements.
Cost has been the biggest hurdle to a new central office — which must have its funding approved by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners — but this year it looked like the school board may have found a way to at least put off that worry.
In June, the school board proposed a new plan: A developer had offered to build a new central office downtown and let the school system lease it with an option to buy. If the board exercised that option, the developer estimated, it would cost about $7 million.
Gene Miller, assistant superintendent for operations, said the school system would save more than that over the next decade by combining its operations and avoiding costs for repairs and upkeep at its Salisbury and East Spencer administrative offices.
In late December, the Salisbury City Council agreed to donate a $200,000 parcel in the 300 block of South Main Street for a 62,000 square-foot building and to build a parking lot for the new central office.
That seemed to be the last piece the school system needed to fall into place before taking the proposal to county commissioners, who are set to discuss it at their Jan. 3 meeting.
Then came that wrinkle. At their Dec. 19 meeting, Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education members agreed they’d consider other sites if commissioners don’t approve the downtown option, and it seems two county officials were already working on that.
Just before Christmas, the Rev. Bill Godair, pastor of Cornerstone Church, revealed he’d offered to sell the county part or all of the church’s Webb Road campus after being approached by commissioners Carl Ford and Jim Sides. The sale would be for between $3 million and $4 million, less than a previous offer to sell the campus to the school system for up to $5.5 million.
8. Rose Post passes
Maybe in other communities, the death of a former newspaper columnist wouldn’t register as one of the year’s top news stories.
But this is Rowan County. And she was Rose Post.
After a lengthy struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, Post died Oct. 20 at the age of 85.
She had retired in 2007, but over her 56-year career with the Salisbury Post, she became identified closely with the newspaper and her name was attached to so many stories that sometimes readers assumed the Salisbury Post was named for her.
And the newspaper probably didn’t mind. The diminutive woman at the cluttered corner desk had taken the toughest assignments, like integration and war, and put a human face to them. Her gift was to help people tell their stories, and she treated everyone like theirs was the most important story ever set in print.
“People opened up to her often personal questions, and her stories captured the essence of the person in such an enjoyable manner,” Phil Kirk, a longtime friend and former chairman of the N.C. Board of Education, said after her death.
Post won countless awards — including the national Ernie Pyle award for human interest writing — and a creative nonfiction contest is named for her. She was feted by five Salisbury mayors at a birthday celebration in 2007 and painted into a downtown mural depicting many well known Salisburians.
It’s the stories, and how she told them, that got her there, and for which she’ll be remembered most.
“Readers could not wait to get their copy of the Post to read what Rose had written,” Kirk said.
9. Salisbury Fire Dept. investigation
An investigation into the Salisbury Fire Department culminated in January and February 2011 with the dismissal of three employees and the suspension of a fourth.
Battalion Chief Chris Lyerly, Capt. Baxter “Buddy” Miller and firefighter Courtney Brown all were fired from the department. Firefighter Castleman “Chet” Hedrick was suspended without pay and later returned to active duty.
While city officials refused to disclose the specific acts that cost the employees their jobs, City Manager David Treme said the investigation began in mid-December after Fire Department officials brought “rumors” to the attention of City Hall.
And those rumors, Treme confirmed, were “close” to the same allegations contained in an anonymous letter sent to city officials and the Salisbury Post — that the misconduct was sexual in nature and involved several Fire Department employees.
Brown was fired for “misrepresentation of facts and willful acts of misconduct,” according to her dismissal letter, while Lyerly and Miller were fired “due to actions of misconduct by a fire department supervisor.”
Officials sought to maintain confidence in the fire department.
“We are sincerely saddened and disappointed that we have had to deal with personnel issues involving members of the Salisbury Fire Department. I regret if these actions have diminished confidence in our department,” Fire Chief Bob Parnell said in a statement.
“However, I want to assure our citizens that during this time, their fire protection service was never compromised. … We will work hard to maintain the public’s confidence in our department.”
10. Falling property values
When he got his revaluation notice in March, Clyde Motley was baffled.
According to Rowan County, the value of his house and 2.4 acres of land on Cox Road fell 21 percent — from $121,000 in 2007 to $96,000 in 2011.
“I just can’t understand how a piece of property can drop that much,” Motley said at the time.
He wasn’t alone. Property values fell across Rowan as the results of a countywide revaluation arrived in mailboxes. It was the first assessment of tax value since the housing bubble burst at the outset of the Great Recession.
While most of the thousands of appeals spawned by the revaluation sought even lower tax bills, many homeowners thought their values had been cut too much.
And it hit local governments hard. Faced with shrunken tax bases, many government bodies, including Rowan County, increased their tax rate just to bring in the same revenue.
Kannapolis fared best in the revaluation because most of it lies in Cabarrus County, and gains in tax base there offset the losses in the Rowan portion of the city, City Manager Mike Legg said in March.
But Cabarrus is conducting a revaluation now that’s set to take effect in 2012.
“Our pain may be next year,” Legg said.
Reporter Emily Ford contributed to this story.