I began studying Hickory’s economic viability by looking at what I have heard experts state is needed to bring our economy forward in an era of exponential change. We must move forward and embrace this new economic era or we will continue to deteriorate. Other communities throughout the U.S. have successfully made this transition. It is our turn to do the same. If we continue to fail to act, then the consequences for our future will only become graver. One of the keys to solving our dilemma is to embrace a new paradigm of ideals and collaboration. We have to work together in a positive manner and become more tolerant of the cultural and attitudinal differences amongst us.
Many of the investments that our community must make in the near term come with no guarantee, but we know that we must do something. The future is ambiguous and therefore it is incomprehensible to many, but most everything that we have today was thought to be impossible at a point in the past. We cannot turn the clock back and trying to do so leads to a fruitless effort. Furniture and textiles built this community and those industries created a dependable economy that the people of this area trusted and relied on for nearly a century. But those industries are gone and they aren’t coming back.
Looking at other communities who have been successful, or even those that have been where we are now and improved drastically, lays out a road map that we can learn from. There will be risks involved and we can’t copy what these communities have done, but we can certainly learn a lot from what they have done. There are forward thinking, innovative, investment ideas amongst our community that are constantly shot down , because of the way our community has adapted down and become accepting of mediocrity and unwilling to take any risks.
Hickory can no longer afford to give business "the business." We are moving into an age of connections and our government must become more adaptive and friendly to the needs of all business. If we want to grow this city, we must make sure that we have growing commercial enterprises. Lay out the ground rules, be consistent in the implementation, know what you are talking about, know the answers, and help entrepreneurs do their thing. It is not the government’s job to micromanage other people’s property.
If this community is to move forward, then we are going to have to get community leaders to step out of their day-tight compartments, reach outside of their comfort zone, and try to embrace the new paradigm. Dale Carnegie taught people to live day-to-day (in day-tight compartments) and he believed that constantly dwelling on the future, that is susceptible to constant change, is useless. But, in a world of constant change, we can’t afford to not constantly contemplate the future, because the future is now.
Looking at Richard Florida’s philosophy got me to thinking about Hickory’s plight. Hickory must figure out a way to retain its best and brightest citizens, especially the twenty and thirty somethings. These are the generations that help a community constantly renew and revitalize itself. These are the people who have children and spend money on commodities that help a city to grow and prosper. The way to retain these people is to encourage industries that they will be more willing to participate in; High Tech industries such as robotics, energy, health care, engineering, and biomedical technology.
A key to creativity is understanding and accepting the needs and differences of individuals. In my opinion, many creative people don’t want to live in this area, because we make them feel uncomfortable or even unaccepted. We hear a lot about like-mindedness, but what about diversity? We need people coming at local issues from all angles, conforming to one way of thinking reeks of authoritarianism. Creativity never thrives under such conditions.
Hickory has the resources to compete with any area in the country and at one time we did just that, but now we are at the bottom of the barrel. The Milken Institute numbers show that Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton has seen terrible job growth (193 out of 200), abysmal wage growth (195 out of 200), and below average development of High Tech Industry (High Tech GDP is 130 out of 200). We have been ranked #187 or lower in these statistics since 2003. Our current ranking #191 out of 200 MSAs overall is deplorable.
What is even more troubling is the way that our city has languished at the very bottom of this statistical analysis since the beginning of the decade. If you think that Milken's statistical review is off, then look at a second source. Forbes magazine ranks us as #130 out of the largest 150 MSAs, as far as "the Best places to do Business."
Statistics show that most areas the size of the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton MSA have a principal city that is the central focus of that area. Hickory’s location and history make it the proper candidate to take on this role. The City of Hickory must start moving towards growth again by becoming proactive in developing our resources.
Forbes numbers show that our community is ranked #146 out of 150, when it comes to educational attainment. That statistic is representative of the number of people over 25 years old with a Bachelor’s Degree or higher. In comparing other areas of the country to our own, we see that some have more educational opportunities than us, but by no means do we appear to be lacking. While having educational capacities available is important, it is only one ingredient needed to develop a sustainable and resilient economy. The key is to focus people towards fruitful educational endeavors that lead to tangible job opportunity. In other words there has to be something at the end of the rainbow.
When it comes to building industry in our area, it’s not about College. It’s about knowledge. Do we have the types of Knowledge Industries available that will interest and retain the educated class? Are the people who grow up here and go away to college coming back after they obtain their degree? Are the young adults that we educate in our local Institutions of Higher Education staying here after they graduate? The key to prosperity is developing employment opportunities for the educated (and trained) at a living and sustainable wage. Our area’s wage growth proves that this is not happening. Without good jobs, we cannot have a prosperous and vibrant community. We cannot have the cultural amenities so many desire, because our tax base and marketplace will not support it.
I do believe that opportunities brought forth by Google and Apple will bring positive momentum towards the Technology sector in our community. Tech is the easy way to get involved in the Creative Economy. We must expand our Broadband and Information Technology capacities to create the favorable conditions necessary to achieve a High-Tech corridor. That will entice techies to move to the area and set up shop.
I truly believe that this is a significant part of our "Field of Dreams." If we build it, they will come. All of the successful cities have made relevant contributions to the New World's Creative Economy. These cities have chosen to get out front and lead the way, and as a result they are reaping huge rewards because of the development of their technological sector. I truly believe that the World is still in the beginning stages of the process of creating a technical society and there is plenty of room to get on board, but Hickory needs to get on board sooner rather than later, or once again we are going to be on the short end of the stick. I truly believe that this will lead to good, productive, high paying jobs.
We cannot continue to blame all of our problems on Raleigh and Washington, when our local government is not doing all that it can to take care of our own business. As far as the areas in North Carolina go, we are surrounded by Economic excellence. Raleigh-Durham, Wilmington, Charlotte, Asheville, and Greenville, NC are all doing really well. We should expect these areas to get more attention than us, when they are contributing more to the treasury and dynamics of growth in our state.
Raleigh and Wilmington are cities within our state that are models of how creativity and growth go hand-in-hand. Hickory has to get on board and invest in its future. The numbers clearly show that in relation to the rest of North Carolina, we haven’t been growing jobs, we haven’t been paying people anything, and we haven’t been moving toward a High-Tech economy.
We do deserve our fair share of the money we have put into the treasury, but playing follow the leader and complaining about not receiving charity will not solve this city’s problems.. We're going to have to take some chances, think outside of the box, and initiate some action to kickstart our economy. If we don't soon start growing our economy then raising taxes, fees, and/or cutting services will be inevitable. This all will lead to a further degradation of the general welfare of this community.
There really isn’t a geographical correlation relative to Hickory and the other economies at the bottom of Milken’s rankings. The only correlation I see between the Midwestern cities and Hickory is that their economies were centered on a form of manufacturing that became obsolete, because it was not rooted in the fundamentals needed to survive the movement towards a global economy.
The automobile crisis is the result of years of corporate-controlled government manipulation. Some people believe that the same mindset occurred in Hickory from the late 1990s until 2008. You cannot turn growth on or off like it is a faucet. Certain people, in this community aspired to the ideal of the yesteryear they remember, when Hickory was a quaint little village. In my opinion, the people who attempted to lead us down that misbegotten path of limited growth are at the root of our community’s problems. By the time our local officials reluctantly admitted we were going down the wrong path, it was too late to stop the train wreck of consequences we are now facing.
It is clear to me that our city's statistics show very little relation to what has happened in the rest of the Southeast. Only two other Southeastern cities are in the bottom 50 of Milken’s rankings, Spartanburg, South Carolina (#183) and Columbus, Georgia (#166). What is perplexing is that a few years ago our city seemed enchanted by the model of Roanoke, Virginia whose rank is currently #168. Roanoke’s economic rankings going back to 2002 have been 2008 - #168. 2007 - #138, 2005 - #179, 2004 - #181, 2003 - #166, and 2002 - #139. It is nonsensical to think we have anything to learn from Roanoke, Virginia other than what not to do.
Every community faces challenges unique to a combination of, but not necessarily limited to, Geography and Environment, Culture and Diversity, and Economics and Governance. In my opinion, we are fortunate that we don’t face as many obstacles as other communities do. I just feel that local officials need to realize that America’s foundation was rooted in the philosophy of openness and embrace that principle. Our representatives need to collaborate with people from every background. Common Sense, fairness, and consistency should be Hickory’s hallmark.
Small business will be where the majority of our area's jobs are going to come from in the future and small business is most vulnerable when it comes to the dictates of government. It is imperative that there be cooperation between these businesses and local government. We cannot afford to have business and government look at one another as adversaries. Prosperity for the entire community is at stake.
I believe that businesses should be personally responsible towards setting a positive image for our community. If our local officials are fair and consistent when setting and administrating policy then businesses should adhere to guidelines. Together everyone has a role to play in the collaborative process.
Successful Metro Areas are spread throughout the United States. Unemployment rates seem to have a strong correlation with Milken’s rankings, which include factors of job growth, wage growth, and overall revenues produced from High-Tech Industry. The Best Performing Cities seem to be keeping up with the demand for employment better than the nation as a whole. The Economic Resiliency they are showing must be learned from.
What I believe we should study is the Commercial characteristics and Cultural Amenities of these cities and how they are addressing needs that are relevant to the 21st century. Every one of these cities is addressing their Public Transportation needs and I think that it is imperative that we also do just that. Our Public Transportation system is extremely inadequate for an area of our size. Population growth has been shown to be a key to a successful economy. If we move towards a structure that encourages growth, then we must develop a public transportation central nervous system to ensure that the growth is systematic and sustainable and doesn’t have a negative impact on our ability to travel to different destinations in the area.
Hickory sits at several important geographical and transportational crossroads and should be a vital central location for Western North Carolina. In my opinion that is what caused this city to develop in the first place. Why we lost the meaning and significance of this part of our city's Mission of Existence is beyond me.
Forbes ranks Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton as #147 area out of 150 when it comes to Culture and Leisure. This Index is based on museums, theaters, golf courses, sports teams, and other activities. I think the SALT Block is an excellent public cultural facility, we have the Crawdads, and we have a ton of golf courses (and a golf tournament) around here. So by process of elimination, I believe that this tells us that we need to improve upon our entertainment business sector. There really isn’t much to do around here other than go to bars.
Developing an entertainment complex would go hand-in hand with our restaurant and retail business sectors and it would appeal to a younger demographic. I have heard the possibilities of a mid-sized concert venue being developed and I think a nice Amphitheater in the area would have a lot to offer. Just think of people around the region converging on Hickory and spending money in our stores. That seems like a lot better scenario than always having our citizens go to concerts in Charlotte, Asheville, Greensboro, or Greenville, SC and spend money there.
Many people believe me to be eternally pessimistic when it comes to my hometown. I honestly don’t believe that I am. Some don’t like the message and others don’t like the way I have delivered it. But, would they have listened if I had softballed it up to them. Empirical evidence points to the fact that they wouldn’t have. I think the issues that we have faced and continue to face are solvable. But, we need to quit wasting time and get on with solving these issues that have plagued this area for years.
Let’s look at the Hound’s track record. I told you that there were problems two years ago and the status quo continued on - An All-American City deserves first-class leadership. Remember the headline article from the Hickory Daily Record entitled “35,133 jobs lost since the year 2000,” Where was that issue first addressed? 24,493 Jobs Lost in the Unifour since June 2000 was published on December 8, 2008 or The Relevant Issue: 34,294 JOBS lost since July 2000 in the Unifour from July 6, 2009. Oh, if you really want your mind blown check this one out – Conversation with the Mayor on Hal Row about our area’s aging population and the need to retain our best and brightest from February 2009.
People will choose the direction that they want the area to head in, but it is more than obvious that Hickory and the Unifour have been heading in the wrong direction for years. We understand most of the issues we face on the surface, but I truly don’t think people have looked under the surface to see what is really going on. I think that is how we have gotten so far off track.
I have laid it all out here in this series of articles. How we face these issues, and the honesty with which we deal with them, will determine how efficiently and expediently we can bring this community back towards positive economic momentum. Let's just look at the facts and the statistics and leave personal feelings and attachments out of this process. I honestly believe that if we do that, then we will be able to revolutionize Hickory into something bigger, better, and brighter.
I believe that we have formed groups that can address the problems we face, but the key will be in the follow through. We need to facilitate a process that encourages economic centers of Technology, Energy, Modern Manufacturing, Centrally focused Retail Commerce, and Entertainment.
Other cities have been as low on the totem pole as we are, but they found a way to address their inadequacies. Some of these cities turned their fortunes around in only a couple of years. I think that our current Job situation might be just what we needed, because it brought our problems to the national forefront. The embarrassment has refocused our priorities on issues that should have been dealt with long ago. This gives me hope that we can turn our fortunes around.
I see hope in our future, if we work together on doing what is best for this city, and this area as a whole, and quit coming at these issues from an angle of our own self-interest. Hickory was successful in the 1980s and 1990s when it experienced population growth rates of 26% and 23% respectively. So far this decade we have barely grown over 5% and most of that growth has come from people over 45 years old. That seems to perfectly correlate with the lack of economic growth we have seen in the community.
We need to do everything in our power to encourage young people from here to come back after college and we need to encourage twenty and thirty year olds from elsewhere to move here. The younger generation is the key to growth and prosperity. Our energies need to focus on creating a market and atmosphere that will entice this younger demographic to make Hickory their home. I believe the future of this area depends on it.
Hickory versus MSAs who have made the biggest Economic Comebacks
Hickory Metro's Economy and the 10 Best MSAs in the U.S.
Hickory vs the 10 worst MSAs in the U.S
Hickory Metro's Economy versus similar U.S. MSAs
Hickory Metro's Economy versus North Carolina MSAs
Hickory -- A Lack of Creativity?