Salisbury can build on success

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 2, 2013

If you build it, they will come.
Salisbury did, and they did.

Twenty years ago, much of the downtown area was a train wreck, with blighted streetscapes where the Trolley Barn, the Depot, Waterworks Gallery, the F&M Professional Center, Easy Street, Brick Street, Lee Street, the Meroney, Norvell and Black Box theaters and other showcase renovations now stand.
This week, Salisbury used those locations to host North Carolina’s Annual Main Street Conference for 450 city officials and leaders from 125 towns and cities around North Carolina. They chose Salisbury to see how a downtown can reinvent itself.
Not all that long ago, Salisbury would not have been considered. No other location in Rowan County has the story to tell or could be considered. Rowan County will benefit from this event, and others like it, being in Salisbury.
Counties and metro areas rely upon a city center, the heart, to develop around. Fairfax County, Va., the Washington, DC, suburb where I lived for over 20 years, is among the richest in the nation. Without Washington, Fairfax looks like Rowan County. Closer to home, Cary, Matthews and Jamestown are prosperous only because they are adjacent to Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro.

Salisbury is 3 percent of Rowan County’s land mass. It is also the source of 67 percent of retail sales, 70 percent of wholesaler sales and 78 percent of hotel and food service sales in Rowan County. Salisbury has 10 times the population of other municipalities in the county.
Twenty-five years ago, Salisbury’s largest retail businesses left downtown and took hundreds of jobs with them. Since then, businesses, non-profits and government have worked to improve the look and feel of downtown Salisbury.
They built it, and they came.
That is the promise of the Central School Office Building. On a purely economic level, its location will have little direct economic impact. A centralized office will not create any new jobs and will not add any new dollars to the local economy. Shifting 160 jobs from several locations to one will not change local demand for housing, clothing, food and entertainment. Sales tax receipts won’t rise. The need for transportation, water, and utility services will not change.
But, there are other economic aspects. Research by Professor Stephen Fuller of George Mason University for the Building Owners and Manufacturers Association, estimated the multiplier effect for an office building — after the impact of the construction itself — to be 3. If employees in the central office spend $500,000 at downtown businesses — my estimate — that would indicate a total of $1.5 million in new economic activity in Salisbury. That multiplier seems high, but the idea is that boulders make a bigger splash than a thousand pebbles.

The central office won’t be an elixir like an auto company. Brazil started an auto industry in the 1950s, a half century after the rest of the world, just to create new industries in rubber, glass, carpet, radios, machine tools and countless other industries which, in turn, created more jobs. The BMW plant in Greenville, S.C., has generated a supplier network that more than doubled BMW’s investment (which ended up being triple its original intent).
However, there will be some multiplier and more importantly, no other location better protects the leakage of dollars outside Rowan County. In addition, nowhere else will a central office increase the tax base of nearby taxpaying property.
Just as a family gradually turns a house into a home, a city builds itself. A new building is built. Another building is rehabilitated. Then another. Then a street. Then a block. And then another. And soon, a new and better city emerges.
Every candidate running for public office for the past decade has campaigned on the theme of “more jobs.” Rowan County relies on Salisbury for its property tax base, for its retail sales tax base, and for the jobs it creates. No other location for an office of any kind can have a greater economic impact
If the decision makers really care about the county’s economic development, where to situate the central office is an easy decision. If this decision is about emotion — an “us-versus-them” mentality — then the election rhetoric about jobs was typical political gobbledygook.
Salisbury has proven that if you build it, they will come.

David Post operates MedExpress Pharmacy and serves on the city’s Planning Board. Email: