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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The State of Hickory, North Carolina 2009

On July 15, 2007, I was honored to contribute a Guest Commentary that was printed in the Hickory Daily Record (HDR). The article entitled "An All-American City deserves first-class leadership" is the lead entry of this blog and I am grateful to the Hickory Daily Record for basically allowing me to give a State of Hickory address at that time.

I still believe every word that I wrote in that letter to this day. 18 months later, we are still nowhere near righting the wrongs that were discussed. The hangover from the fiber-optic, furniture, and textile busts are obviously still haunting our community. The standard of living is getting worse in our community and we are enduring the brunt of the current recession, because we have not addressed the serious, underlying issues that we have faced during this decade. Eighteen months later, how much of a difference has that All-American City designation made?

Was I wrong? After the article, I heard certain people say that the
All-American City designation was going to entice businesses to come to our area. Since that initial article, we have continued our downward slide losing nearly 10,000 jobs in the Unifour area and nearly 4,000 jobs in Catawba County. I know that I am beating a dead horse. My Grandmother calls me a gadfly, but I have only posed these questions to wake people up to the fact that the status quo was and is unacceptable.

I wrote a follow-up article to the HDR that was never published, but I believe that it was just as important as the first article. I believe it was never published, because the HDR was given some heat, because of the first article. The following week (7/22/2007) we were blessed with an article telling us how Hickory's job picture was on the upswing and Commscope was rehiring all of these new workers. How's that working out now?



My second article was entitled Building the Bridge to Hickory’s Future. This article points to the fact that we have never had a cohesive strategy when it comes to economic development.

1) Our area has been inundated by Temporary Work Agencies over the last decade. Whether you feel these enterprises are building blocks of community development or not, it is a fact that they enable corporations to not pay full scale wages and benefits to the workforce. Over the last few years, many people went back to the companies they were originally working for and worked as temps through companies such as Adecco and Manpower. Many of these people worked (or have worked) for over a year without receiving full-time status. Should our Economic Development Leaders be prostituting our citizens like this, when they are supposed to be the representatives of those citizens' interests? What kind of security has that brought people?

2) We have seen city leaders devote themselves to issues that did not enhance the public's interest. These social issues took away their focus from the most important issue that our city has faced over the last 8 years. That issue is Jobs.

We are losing many of our best and brightest young people in this area, because of the lack of opportunity. I have seen it first hand. My cousins Jessica and Stephan Moore have told me if there was opportunity in this community, then they would be here. They are both Dean's List students. Jessica just graduated from NC State and Stephan graduated last year from UTI and is working in Memphis, Tennessee. I can name countless people under 30 years old that are no longer here, because of the lack of opportunity. What does this say about the longterm viability of our community?

It is no secret that we have seen a major influx of retirees, in this area, over this past decade. Right now, I feel that we have assimilated these people well; but as we see our city's younger demographic dwindle and the older demographic expand, we are going to see a tight squeeze on our local area's governmental budgets. The elderly are on fixed incomes. No matter how much money they have in the bank, they always must think about the possibility of catastrophic health care issues. While the elderly consume a disproportionate amount of public services, they don't stimulate the private economy by purchasing commercial goods and services at the rate that younger generations do.

We cannot afford to turn this area into a retirement village. We must create opportunities for younger generations so that we can level the demographic anomaly that we could soon be facing. Look at the issues that South Florida is facing because of the current Real Estate Crisis. Much of this is due to the fact that the demographics in that region are out of kilter. With so many 30 year olds and younger moving away from our area and more and more retirees moving in, we are seeing the shrinkage of a viable housing market. We could soon find ourselves in a similar situation as that of South Florida.

What would happen to our housing market if the 65+ age bracket becomes 25%+ of our population by 2025? Who are the elderly going to sell their houses to, if the best and brightest young people move away? People working in Fast Food restaurants and Retail Stores have a hard time when it comes to housing affordability. Many Retirees use the appraisal value of their home for reverse mortgages to subsidize their retirement. The value of their houses are going to fall if we don't have a robust and viable local economy. The consequence will be less money to live on in their golden years.

You can see the perilous situation that our community now finds itself in. Our Economic Decision Makers have not made good long-term decisions. Certain leaders have pushed this notion of bringing in more geriatric care centers and marketing our community to retirees. That might be alright as part of a total comprehensive strategy, but folks we cannot afford for that to be "The Strategy."

The strategy has to be jobs. We have been behind the curve for eight years on the jobs issue. We have lost over 28,000 jobs in the Hickory Metro area. Yes, some of that can be laid at the feet of Raleigh and Washington, but our city is far from powerless and we are far from blameless.

The lack of power that we have is a mindset. There has never been any determination to make things any better around here. We have taken for granted that Raleigh and Washington are going to work us over because we are Republicans. I don't buy that, because I have looked at other Republican areas (such as Texas, Utah, and Tennessee) and seen them thrive.

This recession is reshuffling the Economic Deck of Cards in this country and throughout the world. We can stand at Washington's Pork Barrel Trough and beg for some scraps or we can try to get all of the Pork recipients to spend money on Hickory's economy by figuring out what the 21st century market needs. To do this we must begin implementing some sound policies and strategies. People must understand that nostalgia, complacency, and stubborness have caused this city to fall behind.

We must have leadership that is selfless, willing to step outside of the box, willing to take calculated risks, and willing to take the heat for failure. We can't get stuck in a losing effort, because of pride. If it's obvious that Plan A isn't working, then it is time to move on to the next strategy. By doing this, we will eventually find success. We must have decision makers that don't live in denial and don't have issues about accountability. The citizens need, and deserve, to know the direction this city is headed in. Apathy is grown from the seeds of disenfranchisement. We need more participation. Our city will not suffer if we fail. Our city will suffer if we do not try.

May God Bless Us

5 comments:

ant. a. said...

James,

I love all your insights, your passion, and especially your willingness to put it on the line as a citizen with nothing really to gain personally.

I have a question for you and anyone reading: Have any of the city officials, elected or otherwise, responded to your concerns; have any of them written a piece as passionate about Hickory, as focused on the issues? Have any of them put it on the line the way you have?

If they have, I have not seen it. Why not? Why is there silence from the leaders of our community? Any one of them could have a column in the HDR if they wanted to talk to us, but all we ever get are silence, or worse, the occasional short press release.

Silence, Stonewalling, the lack of communication fundamentally removes the people from the process, and we, the people, have a part to play.

Thanks James for playing your part. We may not agree on all the issues, but we sure as hell believe that action, engagement, awareness of the people is critical.

Later,

Ant.

James Thomas Shell said...

Ant,

I appreciate what you have said here. I feel that you pretty much have a good command of the predicament and you have answered your own question.

Local officials do lurk on this site and I have offered them open access and the ability to address this forum, but they also know that we do not (and will not) censor any comments as long as they are not profane.

I don't think they are going to participate, because by doing so they would legitimize this forum as a local media source and open themselves up to the give and take of criticism. By not directly addressing this forum, individuals can write, "Gotta love the blogosphere ;(. I don't really know anything, but I've got a negative opinion and, wow! the Wall Street Journal wants to hear it!" and dismiss us as kooks.

I personally feel that this blog enhances the possibilities of city leadership. What other forum allows for issues to be addressed fully and cogently without restrictions to access, time, or length of content. I think that non-participation is due to the lack of control over a subject's spin that they want to put forth on issues. This forum opens people up to accountability.

Only time will tell, whether local officials are making the right decision by not fully addressing the issues of the day. I hope that at some point in time they will.

harryhipps said...

I think it's even worse than that. Not only do they not want to legitimize the blog or face informed scrutiny, they do not understand the economy or what direction to go in. If it's simply a matter of supporting textiles or furniture then they can cheerlead and follow the momentum. If it's a matter of looking forward during a time of transformation and lead the city during uncertain times, they don't have a clue and are so scared to make a mistake that they don't want to take the initiative.
Almost everyone wants a position and title but who wants to find, promote and evaluate initiatives that may carry some risk and may even fail. During the Depression many things didn't work out and were discontinued. You don't hit a home run every time. More start up businesses fail than succeed but the entrepreneur gives us the spark that keeps us progressing. You can't bet the bank, but some initiatives have to be tried so we can find what will work for Hickory. Our "leaders" are just hoping for the best without them having to be the ones to show the initiative. The question is : Who will be willing to lead?

Anon2 said...

Harry Hipps said it perfectly....Hickory = "almost everyone wants a position and title...". I agree, what is needed is someone actually willing to look forward and lead.

Anonymous said...

As a life long Hickory resident, I love the town...but the current leaders have to either make changes or be taken out of office if the town want to end its downward slide. There was a point, it seems like a long time ago now, that Hickory was positioned to become a city that rivaled Asheville in size, but now it seems we're heading backwards. Replace Rudy, Patty Mac, and the entire school board, find a new vision, and return Hickory to the prominence it once had.