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Editorial: County’s economy downgrade will bring new resources

News this week that Rowan County is in the bottom tier in state government’s annual economic rankings does not materially change the problems community leaders face, but it will give them some additional resources to address those problems.

The county’s unemployment rate spiked sharper and has stayed higher than a number of its peers after COVID-19 shutdowns. That led the N.C. Department of Commerce to name Rowan one of the state’s most economically distressed. In fact, the worsening unemployment rate represents nearly all of the point total decrease in the system used to judge counties.

As for other factors used to judge the economy, the property tax base per capita actually improved. The speed of population growth did, too. Median household income improved slightly, but the county’s point total in that area slipped because of better-performing counties. So, while the county ended up with 209 total points in the 2020 rankings — roughly halfway between the most and least distressed — it ended up with 172 points and the 38th most distressed for 2021. (A lower ranking is bad in this case.)

The good news is that local leaders already know what to do in order to improve the local economy: invest in public education, give institutions like Rowan-Cabarrus Community College the tools to train students for the 21st century jobs as well as ones not yet created, incentivize businesses to move here and make it easy for existing ones to expand. It’s also critical to maintain infrastructure like roads and water systems as well as invest in or incentivize investment in rural broadband. The north star for local leaders must be to make the county’s economy as resilient as possible.

To address the reason for Rowan County’s downgrade specifically, the Rowan Economic Development Commission and other local institutions can turn to grants for which chances were previously slim to nonexistent.

Consider the reaction from EDC President Rod Crider, a seasoned economic development professional, who said he plans on taking advantage of the ranking when talking to new and existing businesses about expansion: “The biggest thing for us with the tier rankings is, essentially if you’re in a Tier 1, you are eligible for more incentives.”

As a Tier 1 county, the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education, meanwhile, will have a better shot at applying for funding to build new schools and get a better deal when doing so. The school board applied for a needs-based grant twice in the previous two years and was denied both times. Its chances will be better in 2021.

For some county leaders and residents, it will be hard to see the positives in being named more economically distressed, but Crider phrased the reality of the designation perfectly when he said, “We need to take advantage of this for the next 12 months until the next rankings come out and try to maximize as many resources as are available to us as possible.”

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