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Forum called ‘a great start’ How community goes from here will be key, participants say

SALISBURY — The first community forum to inventory Rowan County’s assets and come up with a vision for the future drew praise from participants, but many said what happens next will determine whether the event was a success.
“I think it was a great start,” said Greg Philpot, market support manager for Novant Health Rowan Medical Center. “And if we can continue to talk to each other and to run ideas by each other and finally focus and be able to execute some of the ideas that were brought up today, I think it’s going to be a great outcome.”
Follow-up from the daylong event at the F&M Trolley Barn, which drew more than 200 people, will be crucial, many said. Participants are completing online surveys to identify Rowan’s top assets.
Organizers said work has only begun to figure out how to enhance those assets to attract jobs and investment. The Gateway Building partners who pulled together the event — Chamber of Commerce, Economic Development Commission, Convention & Visitors Bureau, Downtown Salisbury Inc. and the LandTrust for Central North Carolina — plan to hold more meetings to continue the process.
Jim Gobbel, mayor pro tem of Spencer, said he has been to similar events with lots of ideas, an inspirational keynote speaker and good momentum but no results.
“The speaker gave a wealth of information, but it’s our job to implement all this stuff,” Gobbel said. “We’ve heard all of this before. We need to go forward and do it and quit saying ‘No, we can’t afford this, we can’t afford that.’ We can’t afford not to do it.”
Gobbel said he was struck by the genuine friendliness of the participants and their sincere desire to work together for the betterment of the entire community. He said his biggest concern is identifying assets that Rowan can use to lure a large industrial plant owned by a national corporation that will offer “wages and salaries that have real buying power.”
Sue McHugh, a downtown advocate and chairwoman of Salisbury’s Community Appearance Commission, moved to Salisbury in 1998. Despite the bad economy, changes that have taken place since then have been “miraculous,” she said.
But more needs to happen, McHugh said. While she already was a big supporter of arts and culture, McHugh said she learned at the forum the importance of preserving Rowan’s rural landscapes and agricultural traditions.
“Some of us don’t get out to the rural areas very often. We stay in the downtown,” McHugh said. “I really appreciated hearing those different aspects.”
Questions posed at the forum were thought-provoking, she said, especially asking what participants felt the community should stop doing. During small group discussions at her table, McHugh said they came to a quick consensus on that question.
“Stop finger-pointing,” she said.
William Peoples agreed and said people in Rowan are ready to move forward. He called the forum enlightening and long overdue and said the dialogue about the future of the community must continue.
“We’ve been in a decline because of politics and infighting amongst different organizations and elected officials, so now it’s time for the common people or more or less the people who have a true love for Rowan County, Salisbury to step up and say no more,” said Peoples, a neighborhood advocate who ran for City Council last year. “We’re sick and tired of the same old stuff.”
Peoples said he left the forum feeling energized.
Ann Morris, who lives in Concord but works at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, had the same reaction. Morris happened to sit at a table of 30-somethings.
“I was so energized by their passion for the community, their commitment,” she said.
Their discussion focused on cultural events and weekend activities, as well as the need for more affordable housing “for all, not just the wealthy and not just the elite,” and more housing downtown, she said.
“These are folks who are really committed and want to stay here,” Morris said. “They want to live here and raise families here. They want to walk everywhere.”
Eric Phillips, owner of new bike shop Skinny Wheels in downtown Salisbury, also called for changes that would encourage what he dubbed “multimodal transportation.”
“Getting more people walking and biking and using different modes of transportation,” Phillips said. “Slowing the traffic down so people can feel safe in the community and in the streets with their pets, with their kids. Kids can walk to school or bike to school, and we can walk or bike to work.”
Phillips said he moved his bike shop out of Mocksville because the town was not responding quickly enough to his concerns about sustainability and tolerance for pedestrians and cyclists. Salisbury-Rowan seems to be headed in a direction he likes, Phillips said.
“The more I see the community here on board with these ideas, it makes me realize I made the right choice by moving to Salisbury,” he said.
Rowan County Manager Gary Page participated throughout the day and said the forum was worthwhile.
“I think we all know that we have to work together in order to get ahead,” Page said.
While there is room for improvement, people also should recognize the progress Rowan County has made despite the poor economy, he said.
“Sometimes though we’re so focused on how we can improve that we forget how good we are,” Page said.
He pointed to Gildan Activewear, which has opened a textile manufacturing plant in the former PGT building and is constructing a second plant next door, with plans to employ more than 500 people and invest about $250 million in Rowan and Davie counties.
Page said unemployment is down to about 7 percent, and county leaders took advantage of low interest rates during the recession to build the jail annex and new 911 center.
“Now we are positioned to enjoy the fruits of the labor,” he said.
Page said that during small group discussion at his table, he was able to share the positive aspects of the county’s recent purchase of the former Salisbury Mall, now the West End Plaza. Keynote speaker Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., pointed out that malls across the country are dying and many have been abandoned.
McMahon also said communities should invest in their downtown to help create a sense of place and lure investment. Even industrial park developers check out a city’s downtown before deciding whether to relocate, McMahon said.
Rowan County has announced plans to pull some employees out of downtown Salisbury and move them to the West End Plaza, where Page plans a variety of uses from government to retail to private business.
F&M’s Paul Fisher created the community forum because he said Rowan is underperforming and needs a community-wide dialogue to identify problems and assets.
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.
Without a new vision for the future and a commitment to collaboration and teamwork, Fisher said, Rowan risks “slowly dying economically.”
The forum finally gave people a chance to sit down together and “have a vivid and unadulterated discussion about the things they want to accomplish,” said Philpot, of Novant Rowan. Now, the community needs to find an identity, he said.
“If we can ever come together and focus on a few good things and accomplish those things, success breeds success,” Philpot said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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