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Monday, October 26, 2009

Fixing Hickory - Narrowing Our Focus Economic Stimulus Package for Catawba County Finalized (The Finale)

This was the final session of the Intra-City visit. This Focus Group was facilitated by Alan Jackson who is the President of the Jackson Group. This was a two hour meeting with a lot of information. Sorry it is so long, but all of this information leads to the understanding and wrap-up of what has and was brought forward and discussed about how to get us out of our current economic predicament.

Alan started out the session by saying that our personal connections to this area are important to think about when we frame our discussions on this. Alan was born in Albemarle, but his parents moved here when he was 3 months old. His parents came here to attend Lenoir-Rhyne. His father worked for MDI, before starting his own business, which was AK Jackson and Associates established in 1976. It was located in the Viewmont Professional building.

The Jackson Group is a family run business and it has never been headquartered anywhere outside of this area. Alan spoke about his family's connections to L-R. Alan is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill. He says he didn't come back here because he wanted to live in Hickory. He came back because there was an easy job to get started with in the family business. He thought it would be a temporary move. He planned on being here for a year and then moving to Hollywood and then that got changed and then he wanted to do something else. It was 3 or 4 years after moving back here that he decided to stay. He decided he was happy here, but his first thought coming out of college was not that he wanted to live in Hickory. Alan has been courted to leave the area for other opportunities, but he said he has no intentions of leaving the area now.

The question that Alan posed is how do we get the people that do go off to college to want to come back? Alan believes he is a poster child for what had been discussed over the three days. He has been touched by every aspect of what has been discussed, whether it be education, business, and/or government.

We all have a lot of personal investment in how this area performs or we wouldn't have attended this conference. The questions posed should help determine our top priorities and what we should focus our energy on. Looking at the business community, they have been a tough group to get engaged on the issues that face this community. What initiatives that we have heard are the easiest ones to grab ahold of and push through? All the initiatives we have talked about are extremely important, but we need to focus on the ones that are tangible that we can do something about.

Alan stated his number one profession is that he does surveys. He is a "Data Guy." He loves looking at research, and surveying data and responses and finding out what people are thinking about things. Alan passed out some remote control devices, which allowed for multiple choice responses on a variety of questions. He stated that this was an excellent way to get people involved without having a few people take over the direction of the discussion process.

Alan showed a clip from the movie Network and 14 people answered the question correctly out of 32 people. The other questions that would be asked would not have right or wrong answers, but they would help get some dialogue started.

Once again Alan stated that all of the discussions we held were incredibly important and they all would be moving forward, he added that this is about priorities. If we have one thing to put all of our energy behind, which one would it be?

The choices for the first question were "What should be the top priority" 1) Education Matters/ Work keys/ Career Readiness Certification 2) The ASU Partnership 3) The Development of new Manufacturing Solutions partnering with NC State's Centennial Campus 4) The marketing, populations growth, relocation strategy 5) Economic Development Corporation Strategies 6) Other ... The answers were pretty evenly split amongst the categories all of the categories except for Education Matters and Other.

Which of the items above would be the most beneficial to the individuals personally? The marketing, populations growth, relocation strategy stood out more than the other categories. Alan opened up the floor for comments. No one else spoke up, so I decided to. I stated that I believed that the in migration would bring more creative individuals into our economy. We have the status quo going on here right now and we would maybe see some fresh ideas. A lot of people I have talked to, who have relocated here, offer a different context from what I have heard from the local citizenry that have been here for a while. Alan asked if I thought I could personally see a benefit from having an influx of new people coming into this area and bringing new ideas, new opportunities, and new customers? John Bates stated that this would have a quicker effect on retail sales and real estate sales.

The ASU partnership and the EDC strategies also received significant votes. Alan stated that some of these could be feeders into the other categories. Kitty Barnes stated that the marketing strategy was the low hanging fruit and that it would be the quickest, easiest thing to do. It is the least expensive route to take and would have a long term impact. It was also stated that if we are going to move towards this strategy, then it is important that we establish a brand identity for the area. Alan stated that he chose marketing and relocation both times (So did I). He stated that the reason is that Marketing and Relocation have the best chance of effecting all the rest. The rest will effect a smaller segment or take longer to have a more dramatic effect.

Barbara Beatty and Terry Bledsoe talked about the County Government's utilization of Facebook. Terry stated that there are a lot of people from outside the area, who have had a connection with Catawba County in the past, and they have a thirst for information about this area. Barbara broached the idea of being able to target the people from the area that have left to go to college (or whatever) and using connections to announce new opportunities and possibilities in the area. This might help bring some of these people back. She talked about how she was originally from here and she didn't think she would end up back here. She stated it was bizarre how she ended up back in Catawba County.

Another thought was that we needed to create the opportunities first, because no one is going to come here, no matter how great we tell them the area is, if those opportunities don't exist. Steve Ivester said he pressed other both times, because we need to look at things from a regional perspective. There are a lot of opportunities here, but they haven't been promoted. If we inventory the opportunities and assets and create brands based on those inventories, and do this across our region ... we have stuff to sell, we just aren't selling it very effectively.

Terry Bledsoe talked about Broadband not being on the list and we are lacking that infrastructure that is crucial to the future. Even grandparents, moving in here, are going to want to be able to be have a connection with their kids and grandkids. There is a level of priority (need) there in relation to some of these other things. Alan stated that it is going to be hard to market and get some of these younger college graduates to come back here if the broadband connection is not as universal as it need to be. Terry answered, "as universal and as high of bandwidth speed as they need." The companies that want to be associated with Apple and Google are not going to be satisfied with 3 and 5 megabits (what is currently offered in our area). If we want to attract these industries here, then we are going to have to offer higher service levels to the home and communities.

Another issue came up about how do we get that 18-45 demographic segment involved in this conversation. What do we need to be doing as a community to market better and bring those individuals back after they finish college. These are the creative workers. How do we get them to the table? How do we get their ideas? how do we get them excited about contributing to this process? If we look around the table and ask who is missing, that is a segment that is missing from this conversation today?

Alan's next question was - What one demographic should we focus on marketing to? 1) Students 2) Young Professionals 3) Married/ with Children (Young families) 4) Established Workforce (Transfers) 5) Retirees 6) Other

Extrapolating the percentages, Young Professionals received 15 votes, Married/ with Children (Young families) received 7 votes, Established Workforce (Transfers) received 5 votes, Retirees received 3 votes, and Students received 1 votes.

Some of the thoughts were that Young professionals bring unlimited potential. They are a starting point for the other groups. They will bring in new businesses and start-ups. They want to be involved and engaged. Alan pontificated, if we are looking for job growth in this area, then (young professionals) are a good pot of potential in utilizing our marketing plan.

Scott Millar stated that he thinks that Young Professionals is the most valuable, but Married couples is the most likely. Mick Berry stated that he was still in the mindset of low hanging fruit. When you look at the barriers of entry on categories 2 and 3 they are huge. You have to have a job. You come looking for a job and well we are trying to do the job piece. We've already got that part we are working hard on. You don't come out and say, "Well, come to Hickory, because we have nice restaurants or broadband wireless. That's just unrealistic. You come here when you are young because you have a job. Someone is going to pay you to do a job, while you are here." He states that the retirees are the low hanging fruit. We already have a ton of infrastructure that they already want. We have fantastic golf courses, two hospitals, state of the art heart hospital and program at Frye, the symphony, and all of these great resources for a relatively small community. That is where you get the most bang for your buck.

Jill Patton said retirees also, because it is very low hanging fruit and we do have all of the things. Retirees have the money and they are going to be here and they are looking for what Hickory has to offer and what makes us unique. They bring a lot of wealth and stability and they do not negatively impact the school systems. John Bates says that it creates a multiplier effect by bringing in medical professional people and sales people that would serve them. Young Professional couples have a big school impact.

Terry Bledsoe said that he voted for young professionals, because if you look at all of the groups, that is the highest maintenance group up there. You can bring them here, but you are going to have to have the opportunities and so forth to keep them here. We will be looking to move them from number 2 to 3 somewhere along the line. They are the most unstable group, because they are looking for opportunity. But, they are probably the group that can bring in the most creativity and innovation into this area. Low hanging fruit is one thing, but what are we targeting here? Are we targeting low hanging fruit or are we targeting building for the future and building a resilient economy?

Alan asked, if we do nothing marketing wise to promote this area to the retiring population, do we feel like the retiring population will still grow regardless? I answered yes, because of the baby boomer bubble. If you also market to that demographic, then you are going to exacerbate that. That is the reason why you see a 23 to 1 ratio of the older than 45 generation versus the 44 and under demographic. We have already successfully marketed to that group.

Alan says this is quite a philosophical discussion looking at what an individual personally wants versus an economic standpoint versus an ease and quickness of what we can do. You will get several different answers from several different people. Jill Patton said it comes back to the fact that we want balance. the comment was made that Asheville has done a great job of marketing to both Young Professionals and Retirees.

What would help attract Young professionals? Jane Everson said we already have local college graduates that we need to develop opportunities for so that they can stay in the area. We don't need to just focus on the young people that have gone away. Steve Ivester talked about how a professor at L-R stated to him that her students were out of here if there weren't internships and opportunities made available to them.

I asked if in a lot of cases 2 and 3 don't go together? Alan made a joke about me taking apart his survey process. He said that technically 2, 3, and 4 could be put together. When you boil it down there are really only 3 groups.

Jane Everson brought up internships and funding for start-ups - Microlending (something we have talked about with the Future Economy Council). Alan interjected that maybe we need to motivate the local business community to maybe step up more and take more aggressive stances towards internships. Jill Patton said that Education matters can be used as a tool to help facilitate this. Alan agrees that this could be a way to socially connect young people to this community.

Nancy Yount said what was also stated by another participant, that there needs to be a much more concerted effort between the business community, L-R, ASU, and the graduates; because in order to keep those students here we are going to have to have jobs. We need to bring the companies in and ask them what kind of students are you looking for and willing to provide internships for?

Alan was asked if local businesses were offering internships to the local institutes of Higher Learning and then he was asked if his business offers internships. He stated that they do have interns, but they have not proactively sought interns from the local colleges. It was stated by some people that the colleges aren't doing a good job with this, because they have offered to take on interns, but they never heard from the colleges. Alan said maybe they don't currently have the networks set up to facilitate this process.

Bebe Leitch talked about the Quality of Life - geographical location, climate, recreation, parks, affordable housing and that we sort of take all that for granted. Alan said that needs to be heard and all of that stuff is important, but we have to have jobs. Young Professionals aren't going to come here, even for quality of life and social/community involvement, if there are no job opportunities. We are in a quandary. We can market all we want, but we have to have jobs.

Alan then asked about what people thought about trying to bring in entrepreneurs?
How much opportunity is there for single person enterprises that might be working out of their home? That is how Google and Apple started. These were creative people in a community that supported them with a good business environment that allowed them to explore their ideas. We are in a global economy and a connected economy. You can work from anywhere. What is stopping us from cultivating that kind of an environment. When he hears Young Professionals, he thinks of those already involved in the local workplace and those that might be willing to do some things on their own.

Alan talked about the possibilities of creating incentives and benefits for young entrepreneurs. That might give us a marketing edge. This could help us develop the area with a brand of being innovative. It is risky, but there is a lot of opportunity there. Dan St. Louis talked about hundreds of entrepreneurs with new ideas and the money issue is the number one issue. If we can create incentives and an ability to get money, then they will come to the area.

Kitty Barnes talked about a program in Indianapolis called Brain Gain, where they focused on attracting young professionals. They had a whole package of incentives to try to attract these people. Alan said it that this type of energy would be very newsworthy. Nathan Huret talked about what is going on in Detroit and how they are creating whole industries around industrial revitalization and recycling old buildings to reclaim raw materials.

I brought up the subject of our local philanthropic interests, because of Alan's interjection of the idea of start-ups. Our Philanthropic interests are focusing on survival and I think we need to start thinking about revival. Maybe people think this is an impossible thing to do, because we have adapted down, but we need to start growing again.

Alan asked where do we go from here? Jill Patton said the municipalities need to come together with money and think "Regionalism." Alan reiterated, who needs to take the lead and run with this? Steve Ivester stated that he believes the Western Piedmont Council of Governments is the only agency that scopes across the entire region. Kitty Barnes said she just doesn't see the WPCOG taking on that role as a marketing organization.

What can businesses do to make these things happen? Alan stated get more and more businesses involved in Education Matters. Nathan Huret says that we need Champions that will stand behind these efforts and say, "This would be great for my company."

I added: A mentorship role, sending company representatives into the school and teaching kids why science is important and showing them examples of how their company utilizes science. I'm not just saying science. Whatever that company represents, they need to get into the schools and show the students how it is to their benefit to continue their education. The attainment opportunities that would be created there and the amount of money they can make and everything that is involved in these businesses and how that can enhance their quality of life. Then maybe they wouldn't be so lost and feel like, "Why am I taking this Algebra class?" When I was in school, people asked that.

David Moore said that the schools are putting it out there, but he doesn't have the time to go find out what they need. If they will call, then he will be there. If schools come to him and say they need help with internships, then he will find them a place -- even if he doesn't need them. Steve Ivester talked about the need for tuition reimbursement to enhance lifelong education.

Barbara Beatty talked about the people that are 45 to 65, who may not be well educated. What are we going to do to get these people back to work? We're going to require people to take a test, but some of them, who didn't get through school, may not be able to read and write, but they are good workers. Requiring them to take a test is not going to get them back to work.

What can the Business community do to encourage the ASU partnership? Businesses need to encourage enrollment, tuition reimbursement, special programs, and short courses. Course schedule flexibility is important to working people. Jane Everson stated that she has met and is going to meet with local businesses and discuss opportunities. Faculty don't always have the community knowledge to be able to identify businesses that might be appropriate for internships

Alan stated that success will be judged by filling the seats. Steve Ivester brought up the comments that the Boone Campus doesn't have a technical R&D focus. We have also been told that we (Hickory) needs to tell them (ASU) what we need. Boone does not have a technical demand, but we in Hickory do have that demand. Maybe the Hickory campus can be redirected towards the technical and R&D sorts of things that would support a millennial campus.

Alan stated we have to push the understanding that this is ASU programming, not second tier. He stated, as the business community, we have to be supportive of it. His business does reimburse tuition and encourage education. It is a gamble, because that employee might leave, but most of the time they won't and they will be better employees. His company does this, because it is good for the community.

Kitty Barnes stated that it is a problem that we are stating that we want higher technology, but we aren't ingraining in our high school students their need to take science courses. There are a low number of physics majors in our community. We need to encourage students to want to achieve in the math and science fields. Garrett Hinshaw talked about the STEM program that develops children from Kindergarten through High School and works on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programs.

What can the business community do to encourage the development of the manufacturing Solutions Center and the possibility of a Millennial campus. What can we do to foster this type of environment in our back yard? I stated that the whole focus of the Centennial Campus is about the Public-Private partnership and the collaboration between government and private business. Private business (there) is looking at the education of those individuals as an investment, just like in materials or equipment. Dan St. Louis said that we need a presence down on that campus or we will end up lost, because of all that is going on down there. John Bates stated that there is a big information-education component that needs to be applied to the business community in this area.

Alan asked Dan (Hypothetically) how what he is doing, and what is happening at the Centennial Campus, would affect the Jackson Group? and have an impact on business in the area. Dan said what he does is all about building connections and creating an incubator. Just by talking, and finding out what businesses do, he can put business interests together working towards a common goal. John Bates talked about how the people at the Centennial Campus stated that this happens all the time at the coffee shop on the Centennial Campus.

Dan talked about a connection he made with MDI, where at first he didn't know why they had come to the Solutions Center. Two hours later they (the Solutions Center) were using them for exporting and they were sending other business to them. He laughed and said if he had known this, he should (would) have called on them ten years ago.

Basically it was summarized that you can sell these processes if you tangibly show people how they can benefit from the services. The key issues are networking, awareness, and visibility. Scott Millar talked about ASU and the Research Institute on Energy and Environment. Maybe we could have some tie-in with that and the Green Initiative that we have and the Millennial Campus. He also talked about the Charlotte Research Institute on the campus of UNC-Charlotte. If you visit there, you will realize how impactful these facilities can be and it is closer than the Centennial Campus.

Garrett Hinshaw stated that businesses need to understand that we still have a large manufacturing capability here. We need to start focusing on some of the research that has been done. We have great facilities and technology, and local industry is going to have to start buying into that and start manufacturing some of these items.

David Moore talked about local businesses looking at what they do and finding out what they can purchase locally to save money and benefit local industries. An example was cited of a local business lady that had visited the manufacturing Solutions Center the day before and found out she could do just that. I stated that I believe part of that might be the path of least resistance. Maybe for her circumstances it was easier to find that firm in Texas. Maybe we need to break down the barriers that are creating that resistance. I believe that is what David is talking about coordinating. That is where the government can come in ... is to create these relationships between businesses.

Part of what Ramo's book talks about is a process called Mash-Up. The Wii is an example where you take the interactivity of a gaming device and utilize the acceleration piece from a car in the controller. You can be Tiger Woods and swing that controller like a golf club and play golf just like you are actually there. There are Fiber opportunities that can be used in the camouflage of military clothing to help soldiers blend into the environment. There are opportunities there. we just need to break down the barriers of compartmentalization and the idea of an entrepreneurial spirit, of the local area, that protecting property and keeping secrets is ultimately important. I understand why this happens, because people are afraid of losing that advantage, like they have sometimes in the past. If we open up a little more, then we might discover some of those mash-up opportunities.

Dan St. Louis believes that one of the reasons the Lady didn't know about the Solutions Center was because people don't think of them (the Solutions Center) as anything other than a Community College with training. People need to open up the process towards "What If?" What can we do? The Solutions Center creates a lot of things, whatever is needed.

Danny Hearn stated what concerns him is that the Solutions Center is already getting ready to move into a building that is too small. Steve Ivester agreed and stated that it is too small of a space for the potential.

Andrea Surratt talked about the City of Hickory's Small Business Job Growth Team and the need to develop an audience between the interested parties and create a dialogue and get some ideas down. Alan stated that there are a lot of groups that are underrepresented here today. We need to get representation from all of the groups here at one time. What the business community needs is a road map - here are the things to do. Here is what we know needs to be done and here is what the business community can do and here is the value. A lot of people need this road map.

What can the business community do to help the EDC? It was stated that people need to join the "Committee of 100." It is about financial support to help facilitate getting things done. Terry Bledsoe stated that it just comes back to connections again. Only the business community knows what their new products are going to be. Scott is looking for business to bring them here. If he knows exactly what local business needs are, then he can pass it on. If he doesn't know what businesses need, the local businesses will end up buying product (or materials) somewhere else. Barbara Beatty stated that we need to make sure that we are supportive of these local entities efforts. This is about Job Creation.

That was the end of the presentation and 3 days of events that focused on Revitalization Efforts in Catawba county and the Hickory metro region.

The Hound enjoyed this three day process. A lot of these ideas have been out there for some time, but this forum allowed people to lay their cards out on the table and it is high time that we started vetting our ideas out in the public arena to weed through them and see which ones can survive the light of day and which ones need to be rethought.

Personally, I don't like the concept of low hanging fruit. I think it is an intellectually lazy concept. If you are going to foster that metaphor, then you better realize that some of the fruit (opportunity) at the top of the tree is just as ripe as the fruit at the bottom of the tree. Are you going to let it rot, because it might be a little more difficult to get to? Have you ever owned a fruit tree?

No, you don't let fruit(opportunities) go to waste. You figure out (a plan) how to get to that fruit. If you spend time whining and naysaying about how it is just too difficult to get to the fruit, then you aren't going to be able to enjoy all that the tree has to offer.

As a matter of fact, I believe we are focusing so much on the ease of cultivation that we are picking stuff off the ground and harvesting unripened fruit. We are so worried about this easily picked fruit that we aren't thoroughly thinking through the process of what we are doing.

Who do you think plays more golf, Seniors or Young Professionals looking to make business deals? Who do you think buys more homes, Retirees or Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals? Who are the Retirees going to sell their house to when they want to downsize? You do know that a big part of the real estate problem Florida is experiencing is related to the huge disproportion of retirees and the glut caused by them not having a market to sell their houses, because there aren't enough young people to take their places. Now you want to move that failed concept here?

As an owner in the Service Industry, who affords you the most profit potential, seniors winding down or younger people looking for new cultural experiences? Why are we trying to change the concept that Madison Avenue has so successfully utilized for years? They realize that Younger People have more disposable income and spend more money. Why are we trying to reinvent the wheel?

Older people do not always equate to having more money. The real world shows that most seniors are living just above Social Security and reliant on government services such as medicare. What do we do if you disproportionally bring these Seniors in here and the government starts closing off that spigot? Mrs. Patton came to the right conclusion when she stated that we need to look towards balance.

The problem is that statistics show, at the current time, we are not headed in that direction.
I think that the aging of our local population is what has moved us towards the adapting down - winding it down mindset. It seems that all of our local Philanthropic efforts are focusing on survival and I think we need to start thinking about revival. You have all heard the expression about Teaching a man how to fish and feeding him for a lifetime versus feeding a man a fish and meeting his needs for a day.

These are hard times and many of our locals are treading water and just trying to survive, but I will argue that this is increasing the rapidity of our area's economic implosion. We need to find monies to do Micro-Lending and help broaden the Solution Center's capabilities. These are impactful measures that can foster creativity and get people back to work. These are efforts that can change the economic momentum in this area.

I think that if we are willing to all sacrifice some pride and ego, then we can turn things around. I have witnessed a lot of leadership, in my lifetime, that is unknowingly oppressive and can take the Oxygen right out of a room (of creativity) with their naysaying. At a time when many of us are suffering economically, we cannot afford to worry about the mistakes of the past or someone pointing out that we were wrong. We need to face up to where we have made mistakes, admit where we were wrong, address the relevant issues, and move on towards a hopefully better and brighter tomorrow.

We can do this, but we have to shed those old ways. I know that I don't have as much to lose as others, but I believe you have to be willing to lose everything in order to gain everything. How many people can really fathom that concept? Can you fathom that concept?
All is not Lost - Catawba County Intra-City Visit and Economic Revitalization Conference
Building a Relationship with NC State's Centennial campus
Fixing Hickory - The Appalachian State Partnership
Fixing Hickory - Education Matters and Workforce Development
Fixing Hickory - “What Will Catawba County’s Economic Climate and Demographics Look Like in 2020”?
Fixing Hickory - A Demographics and Marketing Discussion Panel

Fixing Hickory - CVCC’s New Manufacturing Solutions Center

Fixing Hickory - Economic Development Corporation’s Programming Strategies presented Scott Millar
Fixing Hickory - The Future Economy Council presented by Terry Bledsoe, Catawba County Communications Director, Chairman


Aaron Scott said...

As a student at L-R, I have no intentions of "hanging around" in this area due to the lack of opportunity. I feel that Hickory has great potential, and as growing up in this area, I love this place. But with getting a Masters, Doctorates, and looking for a chance for politics I understand Hickory is not the place for me. Hickory will always be my birthplace, but with poor management and lack of participation from officials, it will never be called my home.

Kenneth said...

Locally owned businesses will be the key to bringing jobs back to Hickory.

The problem now is that most are struggling to stay in business. Most have downsized to a minimum number of employees.

Everyone I know seems to be working less, making less and trying to figure out a backup plan in case they lose their job. I think a majority of people in this area are just surviving.

Think of all the people here who have worked 10-20 years for the same company, now out of work with no hope of finding any employment in this area.

It's going to take some major creativity and money to get people back to work.

TheDustman said...

Hi everyone, I left Hickory for Boston. As a child, when we went to Hickory, we were "going to town". I'm from Rhodhiss and it will always be my home.

Anonymous said...

Don't reinvent the wheel. Follow Charlotte or Greenville's models. Though they are not perfect they focus on many aspects including having a vibrant downtown for young professionals, pedestrian connectivity, bond referendums, self taxing districts, city staff focusing on business development. These are sometimes seen as liberal or progressive but time and time again they work on a local level. We have not done any of these and the result is an aging demographic and stagnant work force with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state.