Candidates have different approaches on job recruitment
By Mark Wineka
CHINA GROVE — There were no theatrics nor directed attacks Tuesday night, as candidates for county commissioner hinted they could get along and put Rowan County’s best foot forward — whether it be in recruiting new jobs or working out school funding.
Six commissioner candidates — two Democrats and four Republicans — appeared in a one-hour forum at Carson High School. A small crowd listened while the candidates tackled questions on the recently adopted county budget, school funding, the economy and making Rowan more business-friendly.
All candidates expressed support for a western Rowan EMS station to reduce response times on emergency calls.
But they had differing approaches on bringing new jobs and industry to Rowan County — from keeping taxes low, to expanding the airport, to supporting an Interstate 85 interchange in southern Rowan, to expansive marketing.
The six men are on July 17’s second primary ballot for two commissioner seats up for election in November.
On the Democratic side, Corey Hill and Ralph Walton are going against each other for the final nomination in their party. Leda Belk secured one of the two Democratic spots in the May primary, but Walton’s second-place finish was not enough to avoid a runoff with Hill.
Republicans have four candidates left for the two spots. Gus Andrews, who was a commissioner from 2000-2004, led the May primary voting, followed by Gene Miller, Mike Caskey and Craig Pierce. None of these candidates captured enough votes to avoid the runoff, for which early voting starts Thursday.
Pierce, owner of Pierce Interiors and Construction, said the drawn-out commissioners’ campaign is “the longest job interview I’ve ever been on in my life.”
Asked how he would make Rowan County more business-friendly, Pierce described a past zoning and code enforcement environment that aggravated businesses and made them jump through too many hoops.
He spoke in favor of a southern Rowan I-85 interchange in the 6.7-mile section between China Grove and Kannapolis without one.
Pierce said business recruiters with RowanWorks, the county’s economic development arm, should have a pre-approved incentives package “that they can put in their briefcases,” so the playing field isn’t constantly changing for potential industries.
Caskey, an officer with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department and a member of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education, said keeping taxes low would help in creating a business-friendly county.
“Government gets plenty of our money,” Caskey said.
He also expressed the importance of schools, making building inspections easier and developing an I-85 interchange in southern Rowan.
“The growth down there could be tremendous,” Caskey said.
Caskey also supported some hangar development at the Rowan County Airport but added, “some options are more expensive than others.”
Miller, assistant superintendent for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, said commissioners must improve Rowan County’s image so new companies give it a chance.
Miller said the county has one opportunity to make a first impression, and he proposed the idea of a “personal banker” type approach that would help potential industries through the recruitment process.
Miller emphasized the need for Rowan County to do more advertising and marketing to blow its own horn and tell the county’s story. Miller said commissioners also must be more civil and professional with the people it deals with.
Andrews, a former coach and teacher who has spent the past 20 years in the resort real estate business, promoted the Rowan County Airport as an economic development tool. He said its real advantage was in the land that can be developed around it.
He described I-85 as a valuable economic development resource and said Rowan must work to “open up every interchange we can.” Andrews pushed, too, for better communications with legislators and making sure Rowan County receives all the business incentives it can.
Economic development is the commissioners’ biggest responsibility, according to Andrews. Without it, he said, Rowan County will be engulfed by Charlotte’s sprawl.
Hill, a 20-year employee at Freightliner and current president of the United Auto Workers Local 3520, said he would give RowanWorks what it needs to recruit business and give taxpayers the services they expect.
Hill said as a labor leader he knows how to negotiate with large corporations and determine what they need and “what we can offer.” Hill said Rowan County must find ways, in recruiting business, to separate itself from other counties.
Walton, a retired principal and teacher, placed a strong emphasis on recruiting business as the best way to help Rowan County’s lagging economy. He said Rowan’s advantages lie in infrastructure such as I-85, its rail lines and available land where business could locate.
He pushed for development and expansion of the Rowan County Airport. He said airports in Concord and Charlotte are out of room and said Rowan County could lure NASCAR race teams and other businesses to its facility.
Walton said schools also have to be brought up to par and if they’re not, “we need to work on that.”
Here are some other notes from Tuesday’s forum:
• Walton said he pays taxes like everyone else and, as an educator, always spent the public’s money as if it were his own. He touted his involvement with organizations such as the Granite Quarry Civitan Club.
“We need people who are willing to work for this community,” he said.
• Overall, the candidates said the current board did OK in passing a 2012-13 budget Monday. Caskey said he probably would have voted for it, though he would have liked a tax decrease.
Miller said it was “not a bad budget,” but he said there were a number of places that could have been improved, including the refunding of past furlough days for county employees.
• Pierce said the current board did “a pretty good job” with the budget. Hill said he was glad to see the county’s fund balance replenished “because we’re not out of the woods yet.”
• Walton said there is not enough effort at compromise on the current board, or a willingness for members to talk with each other and solve problems in a civil way. Too often the attitude with commissioners is “my way or the highway,” he said, adding it hurts in the recruitment of industry.
“We have the infrastructure … if we get past the bad attitude we throw at them,” Walton said.
• Pierce described himself as deeply concerned about education but of the opinion that too much money was being spent on it for what Rowan County was seeing in return.
He stressed that as a conservative he would not spend taxpayer money “unless we need to.”
“You have to learn when to say when,” Pierce said, adding Rowan County government has to continue to be in the cost-cutting mode until the economy makes a comeback.
• Caskey supported the commissioners’ budget decision not to give Rowan-Cabarrus Community College a 3 percent increase for equipment replacement. Because of the economy, “we need to hold the line where we are now,” Caskey said.
Miller said he would have supported the one-time request from RCCC, as long as it didn’t mean a tax increase.
• Andrews said he was glad commissioners are building up the county’s reserve fund again. He also expressed support for allocating the same dollar amount to local schools as last year, although the county manager had recommended a $481,000 reduction due to a projected enrollment decline of 308 students.
Hill also praised the commissioners’ decision on school funding.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.