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Josh Bergeron: As development comes north, maintain county’s character

Michael Gallis’ words in 2000 are more relevant today than ever.

Nearly 20 years ago, Gallis, an urban planner, offered some advice to the Sustainable Community Development Commission.

No one wants to envision Rowan County becoming another “urban smear” on an increasingly homogenized Carolinas landscape, Gallis said. And suffice to say, Rowan County residents then and now do not want to merely become a Charlotte suburb.

While the argument that open land is sparse and expensive in Cabarrus County seems old by now (our archives show developers making that statement for decades now), there’s proof that growth is looking at Rowan County with fresh, interested eyes. And now is the time to take a second look at the vision we’ve created for Rowan County through land use plans, which are several years old at this point.

Consider the hundreds of homes under construction or planned along High Rock Lake, in the Faith-Granite Quarry area, Rockwell and southern Rowan.

The number of new residential building permits issued in Rowan County has climbed steadily in recent years — from 207 in 2015 to nearly double, 402, in 2018.

Meanwhile, local businesses are expanding. Proof of that is in the fact that requests to local governments for tax incentives are a common sight on meeting agendas.

Hiring signs can be seen on storefronts across our community, too. And downtown Salisbury is feeling a bit more full than it was just a few years ago, with new upscale apartments recently leased or under construction and businesses moving into once-empty storefronts.

If luck is on our side, the most significant proof of growth may be in the not-so-distant future.

On April 1, commissioners approved an incentive agreement for an unnamed online retailer that’s picked Rowan County as a finalist for an e-commerce fulfillment center adjacent to Interstate 85 on Long Ferry Road. The fulfillment center would employ a minimum of 1,250 people by 2025. The average wage among the jobs is projected to be $28,388.

Among private employers, only Food Lion and Daimler, which has an employment number that fluctuates based on demand, would be larger, according to Rowan County Economic Development Commission data.

In terms of jobs, it’s likely to be the most significant economic development announcement in Rowan County’s history.

We could know as soon as this week whether the online retailer has chosen Rowan County for its new development. During the April 1 meeting, Rowan County Economic Development Commission Vice President Scott Shelton said a state board would meet  this Thursday to decide whether to award grant funds to help build a sewer line to the site.

That we’re a finalist for such a project is a monumental step in the right direction for economic development.

But, just as Gallis suggested in 2000, we must ensure development occurs on sites that don’t bring us closer to the dreaded “urban smear.”

Economic development dreams have long been focused on the I-85 corridor. Concentrating any new construction there will eliminate or reduce the degree to which Rowan County, a place that values its rural spaces and historic places, loses its identity.

Infill development — building on vacant parcels within a city’s or town’s limits — will also reduce sprawl and preserve our community’s rural areas. There’s value in offering a mix of urban and rural areas to existing and prospective residents. Rowan County has both.

As Rowan continues to benefit from the booming national economy as well as Charlotte’s steady growth outward, our community’s leaders should work to revisit land use plans to see if changes are needed.

More importantly, elected leaders, businesses owners and residents must all work to ensure Rowan County never simply becomes a collection of exits in an urbanized area of I-85.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post. Email him at josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com.

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