Elizabeth Cook: Our opportunity to create a new future

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 9, 2014

SALISBURY — The slides that urban planner Ed McMahon used in his presentation here last week were of distant places — interesting examples, but far removed.
He showed the aged brick structure known as Old Salem Church in my hometown of Fredericksburg, Va. In a tight shot, the church looks tranquil and dignified.
But then McMahon showed an aerial view that told the full story. Old Salem Church is surrounded by development that has forever spoiled whatever peace the battle-worn church might have.
That’s the story of development along Route 3 right outside of Fredericksburg. It goes on to cut through the rolling hills of Chancellorsville and the Wilderness and beyond. But for several miles there close to town, its chaotic, congested development is a shining example of what you don’t want your city to look like. You want vision? Well, this is the anti-vision.

In Salisbury last week, some 200 people attended the forum at which McMahon spoke, “Building Successful Communities.” Its purpose was to get the ball rolling on developing a vision for Rowan County.
Though organizers want to keep the emphasis positive, I think one of the first steps should be to say what this process is not about.
It’s not about increasing regulations or taxes.
It’s not about city people telling county people what they ought to do, or vice versa.
Nor is it about someone from an outside organization trying to promote an agenda.
It’s about figuring out where we agree. What can we all agree we’d like Rowan County to be known for?
For starters, what would you say Rowan County is known for now? When you’re telling a visitor about this community, what do you brag about?

I tend to want to drive visitors through the West Square Historic District in Salisbury to see the pretty homes and take them out to lunch downtown.
If I were trying to convince someone to live here, I’d also want them to see our open spaces. The farmland along N.C. 150 and U.S. 70 is a sight for stressed eyes. Just seeing it makes you feel better. Ditto for the waters of High Rock Lake.
Development hasn’t swallowed up our historic sites as it has in Fredericksburg. You won’t see a shopping center around the Old Stone House or a grocery store towering over Kerr Mill.
Development, in fact, has been slow to come to Rowan. Some people blame regulations. Others blame low incomes.
Me, I blame blame. That is, we all — including me — are quick to point fingers and say the predicament of the day is someone else’s fault. Never our own.
Maybe we all need to look in the mirror.
Organizers of the forum sent participants a survey over the weekend. It pooled together suggestions that came up during the forum’s breakout sessions and asked us to pick out a top 10 of this and a top five of that.
Reading over the survey, I could see that several people thought the Post contributed to a negative image of the community. They worded it different ways — sensationalism, bad news, etc. But the message was the same.
It’s true, we write about crime and poverty and discord. How would people in the community know about issues that need attention if no one told them?
But part of “visioning” may be realizing how people see us. So we at the Post shouldn’t ignore those concerns. Instead, we’ll look at what the Post could do to help make this a better community — in addition to reporting the news.
By the way, someone also listed the Post as a community asset. Thank you, whoever you are.

One of the best things about McMahon’s message was his emphasis on promoting the assets we already have.
Rowan is a beautiful county, and we are blessed with an abundance of quaint towns. We have a great story to tell. It begins with settlers traveling south on the Great Wagon Road to put down roots here.
Lately, our story has been a story of frustration; the economy can’t pick up fast enough. People need jobs, and all the growth seems to be going to metropolitan areas.
But just as hope is not a strategy, neither is need. It’s one thing to acknowledge our problems; but waiting for some great something to fix them — a new industry, different leaders, a general economic boom — is surrender.
As McMahon quoted Abraham Lincoln: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
I don’t know what will come out of this visioning process. But it has fostered a sense of optimism and self-determination. That’s something we can build on.
Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post. Contact her at ecook@salisburypost.com.