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China Grove looks at economic potential

CHINA GROVE — Community stakeholders in China Grove met this Thursday to evaluate the town’s potential for economic growth.

The evaluation is part of an economic development assessment program offered through North Carolina Main Street and Rural Planning, a part of the state Department of Commerce.

Darren Rhodes, chief planner with the department, said the assessment is meant to offer stakeholders and town planners a full report on the town’s strengths and weaknesses. The assessment would lead to recommendations on how to capture immediate, easy economic growth: “low-hanging fruit,” Rhodes said.

Jeff Emory, community economic development planner with the department, said the process is dependent on the community.

“The key to this process is the feedback we get from this committee,” he said.

Participants included local business owners, members of the town Planning Board and Town Council, and the town manager and assistant manager.

During the daylong workshop, the group discussed China Grove’s assets before working on a SWOT analysis: an exploration of the town’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Assets discussed ranged from the economic and institutional to cultural, recreational or communal. The group highlighted the town’s small but growing industry, its wide array of restaurants, and schools and churches.

Speakers praised the town’s sense of community and devotion to civic work.

“Sometimes communities don’t have ‘community’ anymore,” said Natalie Morgan, a member of the Planning Board. “And there’s a sense of heritage with that.”

With assets in mind, the group dove further into analyzing specific strengths and weaknesses of the town.

David Morton, chairman of the Planning Board, said the town is in a great location with increasing connectivity. N.C Rep. Carl Ford, owner of Ford Broadcasting, said connectivity will only increase in the near future with completion of new exits on Interstate 85.

“We’ve had the spaghetti factory out here for years because people didn’t get off in China Grove for years because … they couldn’t figure out how to get back on,” Ford said. “It’s going to become a real interchange for the first time ever.”

Chris Helms, owner of Bella’s Ales and Tales, said the town has an advantage given the proximity of homes to its central business district.

“The majority of people ride to downtown in golf carts or walk,” Helms said.

Other strengths cited included the town’s positive image, low crime rate, positive leadership and entrepreneurial spirit.

With strengths come weaknesses and threats. The group identified a lack or retail businesses, limited business hours and business diversity, streetscaping and parking.

Speakers stressed the importance of being prepared for and involved in decisions about impending countywide growth.

“A threat for me is making sure that we are at least in the conversation to help shape what happens,” said Mayor Lee Withers, talking of the new Old Beatty Ford interchange on Interstate 85.

In talks with the county, he said, China Grove has declared that it’s not interested in annexing and providing services to the area, he said, but town leaders have asked Rowan County commissioners and planners to listen.

“Here’s the corridor to China Grove. We just want to make sure we have some thought process into what this looks like,” he said. “… We don’t want to have 2,000 homes sitting half a mile from China Grove and it totally strain us.”

While growth was identified as a threat, it was also called a basis for opportunity.

Some 50,000 people live within five miles of the town, said Withers.

With growth would come more businesses and industry, said Ford. Both residential and corporate growth, the group said, would create an opportunity for more business partnerships, an expanded downtown, and the potential for new housing availability. A strong market is currently keeping housing inventory low.

More important, said Department of Commerce planner Bruce Naegelen, is that the growth could return business that has been lost to Salisbury and Kannapolis.

“What’s really sad about that is most of that leakage is south into another county,” said Withers. “We don’t even realize the county money to return that investment.”

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