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Commissioner candidates discuss Rowan’s future during forum

Rowan County commissioner candidate Johnny Love is making friction and negativity an issue in the March 15 Republican primary.

In the commissioners’ primary race, the three candidates agree on most critical topics. Love, incumbent Mike Caskey and incumbent Craig Pierce on Wednesday talked primarily about issues related to economic development during a candidate forum at Catawba College.

In fact, all three spoke mostly about economic development when asked about their top priorities. Education was another frequently mentioned topic.

Caskey said the community’s environment is most important for economic growth.

“As commissioners, there’s a lot of things you could and should and would do,” he said. “It’s hard to pick three. I think the most important thing is the environment you create, and a lot of things go into that.”

As part of the community environment, he listed the tax rate, quality of the education, available buildings and streamlined permitting process.

For his part, Pierce mentioned a low tax rate and businesses working hand-in-hand with schools to identify career needs. He also mentioned infrastructure — specifically a county-owned water and sewer system — which is a reason he cites as central to his candidacy.

“The reason that we are in what we call the donut hole is because we do not have water and sewer available once you get outside the city limits of Salisbury,” Pierce said. “That’s a tremendous amount of I-85 traffic that goes by every day and that cannot locate here simply because we don’t have the infrastructure here to bring in the commercial and industrial facilities that bring the jobs.”

Love mentioned a fast permitting process and an educated workforce. His third item was one other commissioners didn’t extensively talk about.

“We have got to put a positive light on everything, so the companies that are looking to come feel like they’re wanted and welcome,” Love said. “No friction. No arguments. No negativity. That’s one of the things that’s held us back in the past several years, and we need to change that.”

All three talked about, or have previously mentioned, their support for a county-owned water and sewer system.

The trio all seemed to agree on the importance of a strong school system. It was the topic of more than one question. When elaborating on education, however, each candidate expressed slightly different opinions.

Caskey, for example, said commissioners have an improved relationship with members of the school board.

“In the past, we’ve had a lot of tension between our commissioners and school board, but over the last few years we’ve patched that up,” Caskey said. “That’s important because we have a lot more trust than we had before. … When you have more trust, you’re willing to spend more dollars they ask for.”

Caskey said he’s always thought Rowan County residents don’t mind spending more money on schools.

“They just want to make sure when we do spend that money, it’s used properly and it’s not going to be wasted,” he said.

Answering the same question, Love again focused on eliminating negativity and reducing friction.

“We need to make sure that the county commission doesn’t micro-manage the school board,” Love said. “I don’t think any one of us or anyone on the board are teachers, so our job is to be the backbone and be there to support the school board and help them move forward.”

Pierce called the school system the backbone of Rowan’s economy, but also spent time describing commissioners’ exact responsibilities.

“The school system is very important, and I think a lot of times people put a lot of emphasis on the county commission, thinking that we’re the ones that control the school system,” Pierce he said. “And we don’t.”

Pierce said the Rowan-Salisbury School System receives certain, allocated state funds. Commissioners supplement the state’s budget, Pierce said.

“We do supplement it, but we’re getting to the point where we’re doing, I think, detrimental things to other county departments because the demand is so high for dollars from the school system,” he said.

Another notable series of statements occurred when Caskey, Love and Pierce were asked about the purchase and development of the former Salisbury Mall, which commissioners purchased in 2013 as a space for county departments.

Caskey said the former Salisbury Mall — now called West End Plaza — was a good purchase. He framed its purchase as extending the life of currently cramped county offices rather than removing county employees from downtown.

“I was one of those who supported it, and I support it today,” Caskey said. “I’ll be the first one to admit that when we decided to purchase it and started rolling it out to the citizens that we didn’t do a good job of presenting what our vision was. Those are things you learn from and move forward.”

Answering the same question, Love said he disagreed with commissioners’ decision to purchase the West End Plaza. It represents government competing with private business, Love said.

“This is one place that I differ from these two guys,” he said. “My problem with it is that you have government in direct competition with your business world out there. I don’t like that. I don’t feel like that’s the way it should be.”

Love said county commissioners could build new facilities at a cheaper price than rehabilitating the mall. Pierce shook his head. In his response, Pierce mentioned a space needs study that projected the opposite of Love’s statement.

“Would I want to go downtown? No, because it was $51 million downtown to build the same square footage,” he said. “Do I think we’re doing the right thing at West End Plaza? Absolutely.”

Pierce went as far as calling the West End Plaza purchase “the best thing we ever did.”

Wednesday’s forum was moderated by Catawba Politics Professor Michael Bitzer. The forums will be rebroadcast on Channel 16 multiple times before the March 15 election.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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