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Josh Bergeron: Rowan poised to capitalize on shifting attitudes about small town living

It’s a question many workers in America are asking themselves: when it’s possible to work from anywhere with a reliably fast internet connection, why pay exorbitant rents in a large city or a pricey mortgage in one of its immediate suburbs?

In situations where it was possible, one immediate reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic was to encourage employees to work from home. The Salisbury Post newsroom is one such workplace. Reporters and designers, all of whom live in Salisbury or Rowan County, have spent at least a few days working from home or, in one case, the beach. News reporters usually head home to work after going to an event or an in-person assignment. In our 21st century world, that’s perfectly fine.

And the newsroom isn’t the only place thinking this way. Two different studies in June — by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence — found widespread adoption of work-from-home practices, even if it’s just one day per week. A majority of those asked expected the policies to stay in place permanently or for a long period of time. 

In a related trend, the Site Selectors Guild, the association for consultants who provide location strategy insights to corporations, says suburban areas, mid-sized cities and rural areas “will be the biggest winners of new corporation expansions and relocations.”

Believe it or not, Salisbury and Rowan County are primed to capitalize on the two trends. It’s got urban places and rural spaces that provide a nice balance. Its location is close enough to larger cities to make travel easy. Rent and home prices remain below nearby cities.

Those are all typical parts of pitches by local economic development officials, but they are more compelling, EDC President Rod Crider says, for companies looking to reduce their risk in the event of another pandemic — the virus has shown an ability to spread more quickly in densely populated areas.

“Comparatively, we look really good,” Crider said.

So, while still emphasizing some of its typical talking points for economic development pitches, the Rowan County Economic Development Commission’s messaging is changing ever so slightly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rowan EDC has created a marketing campaign with the tagline: “Suddenly, smaller is better.”

The message is perfect for the moment. For some, the desire to move somewhere smaller might be driven by COVID-19 health concerns — the businesses to which Crider and the EDC staff pitch Rowan County.

For others, there’s a desire to get more for your money, work from home and/or stay in close proximity to a larger city.

“Being stuck at home is difficult for most people, but there is a difference between being stuck at home on an acre lot versus a condo,” says Karla Foster, the broker and owner of New Pointe Realty who says she’s spoken to people who are looking to move out of more populated areas because of COVID-19. “We hear about the importance of distancing daily, and distancing becomes difficult when your home is on a lot the size of a postage stamp. 

“In big cities, with many things to do, home may just simply be a place to lay your head, but when your office building is closed, T-ball and dance classes are canceled and there are no concerts in the park or social events to attend being stuck at home can be overwhelming and begin to feel like a prison.”

The pandemic is a time for reflection and a shift in priorities for families, Foster said. People appreciate the nostalgia of a more simple life and with COVID-19 thoughts are turning into action. 

But Salisbury and Rowan County are not alone in having some basic factors working in their favor — proximity to nearby cities, inexpensive land prices and space to raise a family, to name a few. Other cities also have similar or identical quality of life amenities — nice parks, open spaces, picturesque downtowns, good restaurants and a lake primed for recreational activity. 

There are areas, however, where other communities simply can’t measure up. The Rowan-Salisbury School System is the only one in the state with renewal flexibility, and it’s proven to be more nimble and resilient in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic than other systems. Teachers will continue to struggle with structural barriers to learning, including poverty and children in families where abuse and trauma are common. There are massive challenges associated with the pandemic that will be difficult for all educators. Rowan-Salisbury Schools, though, will be better prepared to handle them than other districts, and it’s time Salisbury and Rowan County recognize that. 

For all past financial difficulties, Hotwire (formerly Fibrant and now branded as Fision Fiber) remains a net benefit to the city and provides excellent, reliable internet at a price that’s hard to beat. Gigabit internet for Fision Fiber, available throughout the city limits, starts at $59.99 for six months, according to the company’s website. 

In business during the COVID-19 pandemic, Crider said, things move at the speed of the internet. And there isn’t much, if anything, faster than one gigabit per second for $60.

Importantly, City Manager Lane Bailey says that Hotwire is making lease payments for the city’s fiber-optic network in a more timely manner. He’s satisfied with the public-private partnership. And he, like many, can tout a high-quality, municipally owned internet service in Salisbury.

“People need fast, reliable internet service, which Hotwire provides with our infrastructure,” Bailey said. “A strong broadband system will be even more important in a post-COVID environment.”

Working remotely or moving plants to smaller cities won’t work for everyone. It’s not efficient to assemble widgets from home. Some supply chains may require physical proximity. But the COVID-19 pandemic looks ready to shift public attitudes, and Salisbury and Rowan County should look to capitalize on the change. 

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post. 

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