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My Turn, Doug Robinson: Looking back, moving forward on jobs, training

Approximately 30 years ago my family experienced an all too familiar event — an employer’s (Square D Co., which had been acquired by Schneider, a corporation based in France) decision to shut down/move operations out of the United States.

The company had employed my two sisters, (my mom had already retired), two uncles, one aunt and two cousins, as well as countless neighbors and friends. Even I worked there myself one summer while home from college.

The news of the plant closure hit the Asheville area much like the closure of Pillowtex did here, though on a lesser scale. It was the mid-’80s and there weren’t many new employers relocating to Asheville at that time.

Some of the affected employees took early retirement, while others have yet to find lasting, permanent work. The decision to move the plant out of the country also impacted the commercial real estate market in Asheville, putting two very large manufacturing buildings on the market.

What to do? Sell the solution. That is, match someone’s needs with a solution.

Asheville is the hub of the Buncombe County wheel, so to speak, with many municipalities surrounding the city. At the time, there were seven high schools (one in the city and six in the county). The region had several colleges and one community college to which some of those students matriculated following high school.

At the time, employment in the Asheville/Buncombe area was still rooted in manufacturing and agriculture; however, leaders recognized that technology was on the rise and more emphasis was needed at the high school level.

Leaders decided to meet this need by creating a center focused on teaching the necessary skills. It must be centrally located so that students could split their learning day between it and their high school (so as to complete math, sciences and literature requirements).

The solution, housed in one of those closed factories, is today’s Martin L. Nesbit, Jr. Discovery Academy (https://mlnda.buncombeschools.org/), which provides an “environment which focuses on engagement, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and inquiry. Throughout their time at Nesbitt Discovery Academy, students will be immersed in project-based learning, allowing them to possibly develop solutions to ‘real-world’ problems. In addition, they will have the opportunity to establish partnerships/relationships with local businesses/industries and local colleges/universities.”

Salisbury/Rowan today mirrors the Asheville/Buncombe of yesterday. In my opinion, our community needs its own “Discovery Academy” to capitalize on the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills needed to succeed in the future.

Such an institution would complement the newly announced IDEA Center coming to West End Plaza, and should be housed in the vacant Belk retail space, so as to combine the best of both in one location. Retrofit the vacant Cinema Movie Theater, then connect it to West End Plaza with a new building housing introductory courses to the technical fields (HVAC, law enforcement, automotive, etc.) and incorporate the existing Early College program, and we could have our own Weaver Academy as is in Greensboro. (http://weaver.gcsnc.com)

Our community finds itself at a critical juncture. The widening of I-85 will make Charlotte a 20-30 minute drive away, opening our county to limitless possibilities but also to challenges. We must provide top-notch educational opportunities to improve Salisbury/Rowan’s appeal to new employers and their employees. Perhaps we might even reclaim students who have chosen to attend private schools instead of public schools.

The future certainly lies ahead of us. Do we have the courage and leadership to successfully take us there? And most importantly are we as residents ready to make a financial commitment (i.e. taxes) to make these dreams a reality?

B. Douglas Robinson is a resident of Salisbury.

Send your My Turn submission of 500 to 700 words to letters@salisburypost.com. Please include your name, phone number, address and, if you wish, a photo of the writer.

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