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Editorial: Spurring low growth higher

It was the best of times, it was the meh of times.

Apologies to Charles Dickens, but as North Carolina’s urban and suburban populations mushroom, rural counties like Rowan look on with envy. From 2010 to 2016, the population in Mecklenburg and Wake counties grew 14.7 and 16.2 percent, respectively, according to the most recent Census figures. Cabarrus grew 13.25 percent. And Rowan’s population grew 1.08 percent — positive, but not booming.

It could be worse. In several areas of the state, growth has been thrown in reverse. The loss is especially pronounced in the northeast, where Northampton County lost 9.5 percent of its population in the six-year span and eight nearby counties shrank 5 percent or more.

During his ill-fated foray into presidential politics, former U.S. Sen. John Edwards used to refer to the “two Americas,” meaning the haves and have-nots. There’s no denying such division exists in North Carolina, but the breakdown is more complicated. At the moment, there appear to be three North Carolinas — the thriving, the stable and the shrinking.

An old saying seems appropriate here — if you’re not moving forward, you’re going backwards.

Rowan, Davidson and Davie counties sit in the middle, holding our own but knowing that it will take more to sustain our communities. Without population growth, local  businesses and property values are at risk. That threatens the tax base and the county’s ability to support schools, hire deputies, operate parks and so on. We don’t want growth for growth’s sake; we want it for survival.

County commissioners are leading the charge locally. Their pro-growth strategy includes the extension of water and sewer lines into parts of the county, improvements at the county airport, development of the new Granite Industrial Park, an  I-85 exchange at Old Beatty Ford Road and moving forward on a county branding strategy, among other actions.

Rowan has many strong points, but the county’s greatest advantage is our location on a major interstate highway, within an hour of rapidly growing Charlotte and the populous Triad area. Our biggest challenges are student test scores and the crime rate, both targets of recent initiatives.

Growth is a double-edged sword. Rowan residents don’t long for traffic congestion or the other headaches that come with rapid growth. But we’d like to keep all our schools open, encourage local businesses and offer more job opportunities — and hope — to the jobless. The only way to make those things happen is to attract more businesses and population. Let’s keep “the best of times” in our sights.

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