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Elizabeth Cook: Elections won’t solve all problems

The parking lot outside Catawba College’s Ketner Hall was packed Thursday night — mostly because of night classes but also because of a candidate forum going on inside.

The eight candidates vying for three seats on the Rowan County Board of Commissioners drew a full house. This is an important election for the county. But, as one candidate said, it will take more than new county commissioners to get our economy back on track.

The forces affecting Rowan are much bigger. Among them are:

The demise of the textile industry. From the day Cone Mills announced in 1999 that it was closing its Salisbury plant, Rowan has seen a steady exodus of  manufacturing jobs. The biggest blow came in 2003, when Pillowtex shut down. This threw thousands of people out of work. Those who could find jobs elsewhere moved away. That includes middle managers and executives. The people pulling down higher salaries moved to where the money was. Others were just left behind.

The Recession. The national economic crisis kicked Rowan while it was down.

The maturation of Food Lion. The success of our homegrown supermarket chain brought a big infusion of wealth to Rowan County. We reap the benefits every day through the cultural amenities and other community improvements that stockholders generously supported. But that phase of the company’s growth is over. Food Lion remains an invaluable part of our community, but it’s not making many new millionaires, and few of the company’s top executives choose to live and raise their families in Rowan.

The urbanization of North Carolina. Back in the 1990s, growth rippled out from Charlotte in concentric circles and appeared about to reach Rowan. Now Charlotte’s growth looks more like a wave that lapped onto the edge of Rowan during a high tide and then receded. North Carolina is growing, but most of the growth is going to urban areas. Two-thirds of the state’s population growth since 2010 has been in the Charlotte and Triangle metro regions.

But Rowan is doing better than many other rural counties, and there are reasons to be hopeful about the future.

New energy in education: When families choose where to live based on school test scores, Rowan-Salisbury comes up short. That’s both our biggest challenge and our greatest opportunity for improvement, and no one is denying that any more. The public school system has taken the bold step of adopting a one-to-one digital program, putting devices in the hands of every student in grades 3 through 12 by the end of this year.  It will take some time for this to impact test scores, but in the meantime the alliance that has sprung up among college and school officials here shows the commitment is both deep and wide. 

Natural resources: The Yadkin River is one of Rowan’s greatest assets. The Salisbury-Rowan Utilities system has a maximum water capacity of 12 million gallons per day and uses an average of 7.56 million. That means there’s room for growth. Now the county is studying getting into the water-sewer business as well, which could open up more of the county for development.

New leadership: True, new commissioners can’t single-handedly turn Rowan County around. It’s not fair to blame county commissioners or city council for every challenge the community faces. But the candidates vying for the three open slots at least are saying all the right things about working collaboratively with other boards and setting a positive tone. The fact that Rowan has so many well-qualified candidates interested in helping to lead the way is promising.

We have a lot of strengths to build on: good access to quality health care, a wealth of arts and cultural groups, and a prime location on an interstate highway — with a new bridge, even.

I overheard one candidate say recently that voters have become complacent again. People put a lot of energy into making sure commission Chairman Jim Sides didn’t make it past the primary. Now they consider their work done. But it’s really just beginning. Be sure to study the candidates and vote for someone who can help keep this forward momentum going. Let’s fill up more parking lots with active, involved citizens.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post

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