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Ten years after the recession, locals discuss recovery

Ten years ago, United States citizens would witness the end of an era.

The year was 2007, and it began with promise. Resold, single-family home sales peaked in February, reaching a rate of 5.88 million sales annually.

Downturn would be quick and lead to an economic crisis that would shake the nation. By December, the U.S. foreclosure rate ranked some 97 percent higher than that of December 2006.

The cause? Slack lending regulations at a national level. Large banks amassed an abundance of subprime mortgage deals, leading to large losses. Distrust and panic within the financial sector ensued, and the Great Recession began.

This recession would later be called the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and Rowan County would suffer the trickle-down effects.

Unemployment soared to 13.3 percent at yearend in 2009, having started at just six percent two years prior. Poverty increased as well, with five-year estimates reaching 19.1 percent in 2014, compared to 16.3 percent in 2010.

Ten years later, effects of the recession are still apparent across Rowan County. But, local officials and professionals are hopeful for change in the year ahead.

Before the downturn

Susan Kluttz was Salisbury’s mayor from 1997 until 2011. Her job during the years leading up to the recession, she said, was easy.

The economy was good, she said, and people seemed happier.

“This tremendous positive energy made it easier for the city to accomplish many initiatives that came up to improve the city and the life of people here,” Kluttz said.

Victor Wallace, president of Wallace Realty in Salisbury, reported similarly positive circumstances.

Wallace said 2001 to 2009 was a period of a booming economy, wherein Rowan County was experiencing a “robust expansion.”

“We were building 15 to 20 housing units a year, depending on the availability of the builders,” he said.

Despite citizen enthusiasm and apparent growth, Kluttz says her father warned her of hard days to come.

Her father was Dr. John Wear, himself a former mayor of Salisbury.

“He said ‘you wait until the economy turns bad … because it will be very different,’” said Kluttz.

The recession hits

After the housing bubble burst, effects of the global financial crisis would trickle downward. Many local homeowners would go upside down in their mortgages. Foreclosures skyrocketed, and many businesses were forced to close their doors.

Local financial institutions like F&M Bank saw trouble before it began.

“F&M took pride in being the leading mortgage lender in our market for many years,” said CEO Steve Fisher. “In the early 2000s, we watched as we gradually fell to second place behind a group of lenders titled ‘other.’ When we researched the ‘other’ category, we found a large number of mortgage brokers making loans that F&M had previously turned down. That’s when we first recognized there was trouble on the horizon.”

Wallace said that these ‘other’ lenders were handing out what the industry calls ‘NINJA’ loans — loans to individuals with ‘no income, no job and no assets.’

“What happened is that these (homeowners) evaporated,” Wallace said.

Big banks struggled to make ends meet as losses continued. Many customers withdrew their assets, creating more financial strain.

Financial uncertainty was mirrored in massive stock market fluctuation and decline.

In Rowan County, tax revenues in the past decade reflect this market uncertainty. Year-to-year changes range from a loss of 10.71 percent from 2011 to 2012, to gains of 33.69 percent from 2009 to 2010.

Local attitudes, Kluttz said, turned nasty.

“There was a negativism that surfaced that I really had never seen before,” she said. “Anonymous blogs began … . There was a way for people to vent their frustrations publically … without offering any constructive criticism.”

But the general public wasn’t the only party with hurt feelings and distrust. Across the United States, banks began hoarding limited financial assets, becoming less willing to lend money to new developers.

This, Wallace said, hit builders in the housing industry particularly hard.

“We represented 20 builders before this thing started,” he said. “Of those, only two are still in business or alive. … It was bad.”

Kirby Sells of Sells and Sons Construction said that the downturn in new construction made remodeling businesses like his boom.

“It kind of made my business better because everybody’s not getting a new house,” he said. “They’re keeping their old house.”

For others like Spencer Lane of Spencer Lane Construction, business models had to temporarily shift for the sake of survival. Lane’s business of new home construction fell from 30 homes a year to a mere 10 — a loss of two-thirds.

“I did other stuff,” said Lane. “Remodel work and other stuff that I normally don’t do. We just survived it.”

Life now

Indicators of county healthy show positive gains, but recovery is slow.

County tax revenue for 2016 rose 71.28 percent compared to the decade’s lowest revenue in 2009.

In December of 2016, unemployment was at 5.3 percent, decreasing eight points from 2009. This rate decreased an average of 1.16 percent annually over the past seven years.

“When the recession started, no one ever realized it would be 10 years before it changed,” said former-mayor Susan Kluttz. “That’s a long time.”

Victor Wallace said he feels this slow recovery is an indicator of insufficient growth in local job opportunities. But, he remains hopeful in light of the upcoming expansion of Interstate 85.

The expansion will make for a good sales pitch, putting Salisbury just 45 minutes from the Charlotte and Greensboro airports and a little under two hours from Raleigh, he said.

“I think we’re going to get another shot if the economy holds up and the road is completed,” said Wallace.

Steve Fisher agreed.

“Our local economy is stable with potential for growth, if we position ourselves correctly to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Fisher. “Our current county government has made great strides in preparing us to grow. The I-85 widening project can be a catalyst for Rowan, if we are ready with the right infrastructure, workforce and quality of life components.”

Elaine Spalding, president of Rowan County’s Chamber of Commerce, said change is on the horizon even before the interstate’s estimated 2020 completion.

She said a telling indicator of Rowan County’s financial health is the per capita income, which increased 2.1 percent from 2015 to 2016.

“That really shows the entrepreneurial spirit that’s here,” she said. “People have gone out and started businesses.”

Spalding said that small, medium and large businesses have reported plans to hire in the first quarter of 2018. The economy in North Carolina and, specifically, Rowan County, is looking really good, she said.

Wallace said that industrial buildings in the county are near full capacity. Of the nearly 80 commercial properties Wallace Realty manages, only 3 are vacant, and the company’s existing home sales increased 20 percent year-over-year in 2017, he said.

“Rowan is finally starting to see some of that growth from the Charlotte area,” Spalding said. “We need to be prepared for the growth that is to come.”

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