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Fisher warns of worsening economy without new vision, cooperation in Rowan

SALISBURY — A day-long planning event to come up with a vision for Rowan County is sold out, and Paul Fisher said he’s not surprised.
“The attendance signals the fact that people understand that we are underperforming, and they actually want to help in a community-wide dialogue to see what our problems are and learn what our assets are and look at that equation,” Fisher said. “With all the assets that we have, we should be doing much better.”
Fisher, chairman and CEO of F&M Financial Corp. and one of the city’s major philanthropists, came up with the idea for Thursday’s Rowan County community forum. He handed the ball to the Gateway Building partners — the Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Commission, Convention & Visitors Bureau, Downtown Salisbury Inc. and the LandTrust for Central North Carolina.
Fisher pointed to statistics that he said paint a troubling picture of Rowan’s economy. Unemployment is still high, the median income has dropped, and 22 percent of Rowan residents live in poverty, he said, compared with a national average of 15 percent.
Young, college-educated people who grew up in Rowan are moving away.
“We need to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” Fisher said. “No one is going to do it for us.”
The community forum is an opportunity to bring together citizens from all areas of the county to consider Rowan’s assets but also identify the challenges and headwinds, Fisher said.
“And put forth a positive vision for the future, so we can compete in the world and economically not only stay alive but move forward for the benefit of our children and grandchildren,” he said. “We need to leave them a county much stronger than we found. We owe that to them.”
Fisher said he and others feel compelled to act and warned that without a new vision for the future and a commitment to collaboration and teamwork, Rowan risks “slowly dying economically.”
If business and community leaders and elected officials work together, Fisher said he’s convinced Rowan can find a way forward.
“It is going to take effort and leadership and cooperation and collaboration, and we are not doing that,” he said. “We are not playing together as a team like we need to do to win.
“If you keep playing the kind of ball that we’ve been playing, you’re going to lose.”
Forum organizers lined up Ed McMahon, a nationally known community development speaker, to headline the event. An attorney and senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., McMahon analyzes community and economic development issues and trends.
Throughout the day, nearly 200 participants will help create a shared vision for Rowan County. Business and community leaders will come together and develop a plan for a more positive working relationship among key community partners, chamber President Elaine Spalding said.
All available seats have been reserved, Spalding said. The event will be held in the F&M Trolley Barn at no cost to participants thanks to generous sponsors, she said.
McMahon will open the forum with “Secrets of Successful Communities.” Catawba College President Dr. Brien Lewis will offer “A Newcomer’s View.”
Then participants will divide into breakout session to come up with the three most important community assets for attracting new jobs and investments to Rowan County.
McMahon returns to the stage Thursday night to discuss “Developing Your Community Vision.” Participants will summarize community assets and come up with a call to action.
In the middle of the day, education leaders will present a panel discussion on education strategic plans.
Fisher said education has to be the “shining star” of Rowan’s vision for the future.
“Education is our single most important common denominator for success,” he said. “If we can move that one forward, companies will come again to look at Rowan County.”
The Community Forum Steering Committee envisions a series of task force meetings after Thursday’s event to further develop the process. All ideas are welcome, Spalding said.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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