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NC first lady Cooper sees and hears from Salisbury leaders

SALISBURY — As part of a 100-county tour, North Carolina First Lady Kristin Cooper visited downtown Salisbury on Tuesday to get a glimpse of what the community has to offer for economic development, the arts and agriculture.

Before the tour kicked off, stakeholders — including Davis Cooke of the Rowan Arts Council; President Elaine Spalding of the Rowan Chamber of Commerce; Salisbury Mayor Al Heggins; Director Travis Morehead of Three Rivers Land Trust; and Director Jason Walser of the Robertson Family Foundation — met for a roundtable discussion to introduce themselves and talk about the accomplishments and challenges the community has.

To make a community succeed, Cooper said, “it does take people who really care about their community.”

James Meacham, executive director of Rowan County Tourism, invited participants to share the great things they are working on.

Spalding cited the excitement of the decision by Chewy.com, an online pet retailer, to bring more than 1,200 jobs to Rowan County. She also spoke about the growth coming from Charlotte.

County Commissioner Judy Klusman said the county has been growing economically after some slow years.

“We, thankfully, had tremendous growth after having a reputation for a number of years for being a place that didn’t want business or new growth, so we’re very pleased with our progress that we have made,” Klusman said.

Larissa Harper, executive director of Downtown Salisbury Inc., said the city has gained 16 downtown businesses in the past fiscal year while losing only four. She said she was glad that Cooper would be walking around downtown to see the Main Street community. Harper thanked Cooper because her husband, Gov. Roy Cooper, included funding for the Empire Hotel redevelopment project in his proposed budget.

Michelle Patterson, of Patterson Farm, told Cooper about the business’ upcoming 100-year anniversary and how it molded together a farm that feeds the community, gives students an educational opportunity and provides agritourism revenue for the county.

Amie Baudoin, the owner of Morgan Ridge Vineyards & Brewery, spoke about her goals of creating hospitality with her vineyard, growing into not only a winery but also a restaurant and adding craft beer and, recently, hemp.

Meacham said state initiatives have allowed family businesses to adapt and evolve in the modern economy. Hospitality business provides a dynamic that allows the community to grow, he said.

Cooke talked about the arts scene, boasting about the three downtown theaters and the Salisbury Symphony.

Cooper said the community’s quality of life is a “huge economic driver” when businesses are looking to relocate to North Carolina.

“We continue to see that over and over again,” Cooper said. “That’s what people want to know before they relocate their business. They want to know about who is there, who is qualified to work, what kind of life their employees will have there. Way down the list is corporate tax rates.”

The corporate tax rate comment may have been directed at Republican state legislators, who included a corporate tax rate decrease in its budget, which is currently stalled because of the governor’s veto.

Klusman told Cooper that one of the challenges the county faces is its high poverty rate. She said, as a result, there is a high incidence of childhood trauma and lack of access to health care and child care. She said she, as a Republican, is frustrated with her party’s lack of action to expand Medicaid, an issue that Cooper wants included in the state budget.

“I am very frustrated with the state legislature because I am a Republican, and it’s kind of like talking to a brick wall,” Klusman said.

Cooper told Klusman that she is who the legislators need to hear from, and she knows the feeling that she isn’t being heard.

“There are a ton of good things happening, but we still have some things that we need to achieve,” Klusman said.

Cooper said what she heard in the discussion touched on one of her initiatives.

“I feel like I’m all over the place talking about plants and art and trauma and farming and kids in nature and hiking and environment. But all of those things, seeing you guys talk about (them), tells me that those are all things that go into making a healthy community,” Cooper said.

Cooper said she and the governor strive to build “healthy, thriving communities with healthy, thriving people” because it lifts up everybody.

Cooper said Rowan is the 73rd county she has visited on her tour and added she has never left a place feeling hopeless.

“We’re definitely positive here,” Meacham said. “It’s nice this community has such a cross-section — as you referenced. We’re honored to all work around this table — private, public together — and we’re happy to honor you.”

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