New commerce secretary eyes small business, arts, tourism

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 2, 2013

SALISBURY — When Gov. Pat McCrory tapped Sharon Allred Decker as the new state secretary of commerce last month, pundits and journalists made much of her career with Duke Energy and time spent in Charlotte during the city’s boom years.
“But what I learned to be commerce secretary, I learned in rural North Carolina,” Decker said Friday in Salisbury.
Decker, who spoke at the N.C. Main Street Conference, said the lessons that best prepared her to head the state department came while raising four children, running small businesses and restoring several historic downtown buildings in Rutherfordton.
At the mention of the back-breaking labor that comes with restoring old buildings, Decker earned applause from the audience at the Meroney Theater, itself an example of historic preservation that led to economic development in a downtown.
The conference attracted nearly 500 people interested in downtown revitalization.
Decker, the first female vice president at Duke Energy and a lay pastor completing a divinity degree, rolled onto the stage on a scooter.
“This is the living but not walking result of 30 years of the most fabulous shoes you have ever seen,” said Decker, who is recovering from foot surgery after three decades in high heels.
In 2006, the last time N.C. Main Street held its annual conference in Salisbury, Decker and her husband Bob received an award for adaptive reuse of an old city firehouse, which they turned into an upscale bed and breakfast.
Decker joked that while her husband was in Salisbury accepting the award, she was cooking breakfast and changing sheets for guests at the inn.
She used the story as an example of the dedication and hard work required of small business owners and downtown entrepreneurs. The long hours, challenges of restoring and maintaining quirky old buildings and “sucking sound” of cash exiting bank accounts are experiences shared by people devoted to downtown revitalization, Decker said.
“You have invested in the very heart of a community to try to make a difference and create a sense of place,” she said.
Decker pledged a new emphasis on small business from McCrory’s administration.
McCrory and Decker have talked about “laying a stronger platform for your success and getting the heck out of your way,” Decker said.
While job recruitment is a key tenet of economic development, additional objectives can improve North Carolina’s economy as well, she said.
“Economic growth in our state will happen on your streets and in your communities,” Decker said.
With a goal to bring a “more holistic approach to commerce and economic development,” Decker said she will use a community development model at the department that includes five tenets:
• Equal access to health care for all
• Quality public education

• Economic development, including job and business recruitment and tax reform
• Quality of life and environment
• Arts, culture and tourism

In the wake of the demise of the textile industry, Salisbury has been moving toward an economy based on arts, culture and tourism. Salisbury is considered a leader in the state for an innovative partnership between the city and Rowan County tourism authorities that uses hotel room taxes paid by visitors to fund projects like new Christmas decorations, marketing grants and trolleys.
Decker said she and former Salisbury mayor Susan Kluttz, the new state secretary for cultural resources, are talking about how the two departments can collaborate.
The women are “going to be focused a great deal on commerce on arts, culture and tourism,” Decker said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.