This is the third year in which I will try to describe the condition of Hickory, as the city and its surrounding area presently stand here in the year 2011. I tried to take into account opinions from across the socioeconomic strata and the demographics of this area. The Hound has definitely had an impact on local thought processes over the past two and half years. Many of the structures of governance of our area have fully embraced the legitimacy of the Objectives of the Hickory Hound. And I can show you areas where we have made a positive impact and contribution towards the future of Hickory.
I want to reiterate that this mission is not about any endeavor of personal ego or esteem. This mission is about the big picture. It is about getting Hickory back on track by bringing the local citizenry into the process of governance. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people with breadth and depth will most assuredly stand up on a firmer foundation. This foundation will allow us to have an economy and culture that is more resilient and able to weather tough times better than we have done over the last decade.
Over the last year, we have seen certain leadership entities continue to gain ground on positions that they have staked out in trying to resurrect the local economy back to a solid state. The Chamber of Commerce has continued to carry out actions related to creating new economic conditions of reality, while trying to retrench the manufacturing brands that the area has been known for.
Let's look at the associations that the Chamber has formulated related to Catawba Valley Community College, the Appalachian State partnership, Lenore-Rhyne University, the North Carolina Center for Engineering Technologies, the Small Business and Technology Development Center, and the lower levels of primary education through the efforts of the Champions of Education.
What we see is that the leadership of these entities has fully realized the need to craft a new paradigm of knowledge and education related to creative endeavors. This is what I tried to relate to the leadership and citizenry of this area, when I first entered into the fray related to the local economic-political-cultural arena.
What I related was that we had not modernized our manufacturing structure. We had rested on our laurels and expected the future to come to us. And what we found out is that evolution did come to us, and it was a harsh reality, because we were not prepared for it. I honestly believe that we have taken more than the initial steps over the last couple of years to address many of these issues, but we cannot stop here; because if we stop, then we are going to end up right back where we were or worse.
I believe that the most important accomplishment that the Hound brought to bear over the last few years was the lack of jobs and job quality in this community. I truly believe that the mindset has changed 180° from where it was in 2007. We have taken positive steps towards remedying many of the underlying systemic problems that created the environment that led to the economic malaise that we have faced over the last decade.
Statistics show that we lost nearly 25,000 jobs in Catawba County in the first decade of the new millennium and in the greater Hickory Metro the losses totaled over 47,000. Hickory was the worst area in the State in terms of job growth, we lost over 25% of our workforce. The next worst was Burlington, who lost nearly 16% of its workforce. Over the same period, both Raleigh and Wilmington added over 12%, to each of their workforces.
Currently manufacturing only makes up 28% of the workforce of Catawba County. Back in 1990 manufacturing made up 56% of our workforce. The median household income for Catawba County was $40,536 as of the 2000 census. The American Community Survey shows that median household income, as of 2009, is $41,116. This means that over a nine-year period the county only saw a growth in income for households of 1.43%. Over that same time, the Consumer Price Index in the United States grew by 23%. This means that to keep up with the cost of living, the year 2000 household income of $40,536 should be $49,950.38. What happened to that $8,834? Could you not use that money today?
We cannot go back and change history. We cannot change the unfair trade agreements that have damaged our area. What we have to do is understand the playing field. I did not express the above numbers as a way to cast aspersions or play the blame game. I just wanted to convey some of the contexts of the realities of the world in which we live. The world is changing at a fast pace and if you don't understand the rules, then you have zero chance of winning the game.
One of the things that stood out from these numbers, provided by Taylor Dellinger of the Western Piedmont Council of Governments in an address of Leadership Catawba, is that as of 2009 only 85.4% of total housing units in Catawba County are occupied compared to 92.7% in the year 2000. Over that time frame, the County saw total housing units increase from 59,919 in 2000 to 67,924 in 2009. The total number of occupied units is actually up by a little over 2,500. What this shows me is that we were definitely overbuilt during the decade. We were trying to build for growth that never occurred. As the economy has continued to sputter, a correlation in the tide of increased foreclosures has occurred.
What will occur if the community’s economy continues this malaise? People are already being forced to dial back and face economic realities. It seems to me that as more and more people grow frustrated with our community’s economy that they are going to be willing to walk away from their mortgage to move where they can live a more economically viable lifestyle. This will lead to even more excess capacity of unoccupied dwellings and housing values will at best be stagnant and at worst plummet.
Reality Sets In:
There seems to be a disconnect between local government and the marketplace. Who amongst our local leadership is communicating with local developers and real estate brokers to assess what is happening with the real estate market. Is this just a problem in the relationship between these two entities or is this how Hickory works with all sectors of the economy? Why aren’t City of Hickory officials going to experts and picking their brains about what is happening in the marketplace. That sure seems like a more logical process to assess the realities of current economic conditions.
In looking at local Hickory leadership, it seems like they have an excellent grasp of static accounting and finance, but they don't understand dynamic finance. Static accounting deals with ledgers and zero-sum (finite) budgets. Dynamic accounting and finance deals with investments in growth. Zero-sum accounting tends to be risk-averse and thus reduces the chance for losses, but it also minimizes the ability to grow. Zero- Summers tend to hoard things. Dynamic finance allows for the possibility of growth, while understanding that there are risks involved in any endeavors associated with less certain investments.
Our local government does not seem to have developed a sense of urgency. In other local communities that have seen some successes, it seems like their local leadership is more curious and aggressive in seeking information about making the marketplace work. The local community governments which seem to be struggling are led by administrators who are more worried about making the government machine work and keeping everything oiled and making sure the deliverables are delivered.
What you need is a team with all of the parts -- designers, engineers, and accountants. You have to make sure to not let any one of these forces take control. You need balance. Hickory is in good shape with short term finances, but it is not congenial with the other local communities. It is better than it once was, but it is not a deal making town. They don't know how to make a good deal.
The people, of this area, not just the government, have had an obsession with cost containment to the point of inhibiting growth. This mindset leads to low-balling people. Paying people less than they deserve, finagling contractors to do less than premium work to save a few bucks, cutting corners here and cutting corners there, etc... This is very much representative of the mindset and the direction I believe we have seen in this community.
It becomes a challenge to see what you can get out of others for as little as possible. That tends to P.O. people. The best deals are done to the benefit of both parties. Both parties need to get value out of the deal and when this happens further deals will be made. When you low-ball people, that might be good for one deal, but it tends to spoil the environment when it comes to making future deals and it builds a bad reputation and word gets out to where no one wants to deal with you in the future and there is no trust and/or faith that a good deal can be made, because the well has been poisoned. We can’t afford to burn bridges and unfortunately, in the past, we have seen people in this community who burned bridges for sport!
I don't say this to hurt anyone's feelings. I say this, because it is the perception of many of the people that I've talked to both inside and outside of this community. That perception has become a reality and it is going to take a lot of hard work to change the reality of that image. That is the reality of why a lot of people don't want to invest in Hickory.
The City Of Hickory:
The City of Hickory has shown that they are unwilling to listen. There have been many instances in the past, near and long tern, where professionals would have been willing to have a conversation about the important issues of the day. The City Council and City Staff always have had their mind made up before the processes even begin. The discussions become a charade, and people resent that.
As far as the people of Hickory, some people in this community want their point of view to be “THE” point of view and they aren't willing to have their point of view blend in and become part of the prevailing point of view. They aren’t willing to put in the intellectual effort needed to build a consensus. It becomes a game of petty politics.
We have an area that is right now at 1987 employment levels. While this did not happen linearly over the last decade, it also didn’t happen overnight. We got a big whack in 2001-2002 and then again in 2008. After 2001-2002, we continued to see some expansion. Houses were still being built and other economic expansion happened, including air service into the airport. Much of the bad news has happened in the last two years.
Where we are today is that we are a community that in the last 25 years has developed a lot of infrastructure and services in bulk to accommodate 186,000 jobs. And now there are only 130,000 jobs in the community. We can't shrink back to 1987. Our metro community is built out. Soon this infrastructure could be in danger of degrading; if we don't do something creative to start expanding economically again. There could be a problem with roads, because they must be maintained. Interstate 40 is a perfect example. Water and sewer -- we're in pretty good shape. In terms of capacity of natural gas, water, sewer, electricity; we are way under capacity in our utilization of these resources. And we have not done a good job of articulating that message.
Studies show Hickory at the bottom of the barrel of just about every national study that we have seen. We have lost the industrial base and the money that provided the capital for entrepreneurial activity to occur. Hickory satisfied an enormous market of furniture, textiles and hosiery, and later fiber optics. You can't expect those things to go on forever. You should expect them not to go on forever and we didn't expect either one. Our leaders weren’t making any plans to deal with the “what ifs.”
When one looks at progressive and well functioning entities, most of the organizations related to business in our area are dysfunctional.
If you wanted to make an immediate impact on Hickory under current circumstances, then you would have to get a couple of Fortune 500 companies the size of Century Furniture to relocate here. They would have enough political clout to be able to guide the city, but could our present leadership pull something like that off? This is fantasy stuff. What does a historical perspective show us? The thing you can do is that if you can’t change the minds of leadership, then you can change the leadership!
We don’t need leaders who are in the political arena to stroke their ego. We need leaders in this community who are thinkers and who are intellectually curious. We need leaders who know how jobs are created, because if they don’t, they could cause the loss of jobs and the empirical evidence of the last decade shows that this was a contributing factor in what happened to our job market. Our leaders lost sight of what businesses need to make employment viable.
Instead of working towards a vision of what could make Hickory better, it surely seems that we have seen Hickory City leadership more focused on their worries that they can make things worse. They have not inspired confidence. They give off a feeling that they don’t know the way out of this malaise. And it surely seems that there is an unwillingness to step up to the plate and say, “You know what… I may not know the way out, but maybe we can get closer to it, so follow me.”
I truly believe that if someone were willing to step up and actually show some real initiative, that even if it ended up being the wrong direction that it wouldn’t take long to readjust our sights toward the right direction. And I feel we would give that person (those people) a pass, because at least they’re willing to step up and say follow me. And at the end of the day, even though we may have found ourselves further lost, that leadership stood up and was willing to be held accountable. But, under our current circumstances no one wants to be held accountable, so we remain in the darkness.
When one looks at the City Council and the various Boards and Commissions that they stock, one sees participants who are very static and status quo. There is very little conversation that has anything particularly dynamic about it. Everybody is following each other, they go along to get along, and if someone pops up with something different it is dismissed. If someone plays the role of the devil's advocate and comes up with a different kind of idea, than what has been proposed, then it is deemed to be too controversial and that individual is quickly quieted and told not to make waves. If they continue on with their personal objective, then they are summarily ostracized.
Frankly, we have a lot of people in this town, who are place holders. They have been put into leadership positions based upon status. They were born into positions of prominence and they really have not earned the recognition that their stature holds. These people have not really shown the characteristics of success. They have inherited their position and they are expected to maintain what they have been given. Honestly, you never hear anything about these people's business acumen. What does this say?
I think that this contributes to the “Us versus Them” mindset that pervades this community. These people have a negative view of wealth. Money is not a means to an end for these people. It is an asset that must be hoarded and protected for ones own self interest. And it does not create more real wealth. It destroys it.
Many of the people in this community who were earning $100,000-plus a few years ago perceive that they are hurting financially. If they were making $150,000 per year and now they’re only making $100,000 per year, they will tell you how hard it is to live on $100,000 per year, when they are $50,000 short. Whose fault is that?
These people from the upper socioeconomic strata think they are hurting, but I honestly don’t think they understand or can empathize with how the middle and lower economic classes are scraping by. There is a difference between dialing back on luxuries and amenities and scratching out an existence. There are people who can’t afford healthcare. There are people who are skipping or eating inadequate meals. There are people who are living in cold houses this winter. They get no luxuries. And these aren’t ne’re-do-wells. These are people in this community just trying to survive this downturn!
I look at what has happened with the swimming pools in Ridgeview and West Hickory. And now there are rumblings that the city wants to close the Recreation Center in West Hickory. There is no plan to create any activity for the people, especially the youth, of these communities and the way that the situation was handled wreaked of intolerance. Our leaders in the past deemed these to be worthy investments, but today’s “leaders” don’t have the vision of our forebearers.
Again, we see an “Us versus Them” mindset from our leaders and that leads to an opposite and equal reaction of “Us versus Them” from the less privileged communities on the South Side of the tracks. Wonder what happens to the relationship of trust? During these hard times, when we need the community to be united, we see leadership that refuses to communicate with the people and a great disconnect that continues to fester right out in the open for all to see. Do you not think that people outside of this area take notice of this? Can anyone be that naive?
Asheville and Wilmington are two areas of the State that are still doing fairly well in this tough economy. There is lot of cultural diversity and acceptance in those two areas. These two areas have embraced tolerance. If you go to Wilmington or Asheville, you will see a much larger percentage of their restaurants are owned by local people and they have thriving, robust downtowns. Here in Hickory, the majority of our restaurants are corporate. I believe a lot of that has to do with this lack of cultural diversity problem that we see in this area.
What seems to have fostered this culture in the Hickory is the fact that only a few interests own much of the most viable business properties in the area. The path of least resistance was to bring the Chains in and get them to set up shop here. This earned those families a percentage of those corporate earnings, but it is hard for the mom and pops to compete against these huge corporations. I am not saying what is right or what is wrong. It is just an observation. This was the easiest thing to do. It was the path of least resistance. And it has created a climate where we see a huge disparity of income from the top to the bottom in this community.
We do not have an egalitarian culture or community here in Hickory. As a result of this dumbed down, cheap begets cheap mindset, the only people who benefit from this are the few people who own property in those strategic locations where they could funnel the local governmental interests towards their direction and take full advantage of their strengths of position and influence. This developmental progression fed off of itself until only a couple areas of the city experienced growth and most other parts of the city have become depressed. This has not been good for the structure of Hickory. It has created a corporate, top-down Boss Hogg culture.
Hickory’s loss of Relevance
Hickory's problem is that Conover is right down the road and Chronicle is right down the road from Conover. Do you know where Chronicle is? Chronicle, back in the history of Catawba County is an area that we loosely call today Sherrill’s Ford. In the past, the area at the junction of Highway150 and Highway 16 was called Chronicle. This is where the action is going to be in the future.
As Jay Adams expressed to me:
For years, with my transportation background and my real estate background, I have realized that the biggest and most thriving community in Catawba County does not even exist today and it is there (Chronicle). With the current economic situation, the circumstances are going to chill the expansion, and it is not going to happen as fast as I thought it would, but as the economy returns and as development occurs… and what we may see happening is that we may see a peer-to-peer lending mechanism emerge. And if that gets going, when the activity returns it is going to suck a lot of energy out of Hickory.A key to entrepreneurialism is that you have to have some kind of a micro-lending function, because the people that create innovation, for the most part, are the hungry. That is where the expression comes from, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.”
One of the issues with Hickory is that it is complete. This does not mean that it has to be the end of the story. What it means, is that from a commercial real estate point of view, Hickory has all it needs to satisfy what it is and until there are evolutionary changes, there is not going to be any more real development.
The people who long for what Hickory was, can't understand that we can't get back to what Hickory was demographically or structurally. Their longing for what we were is destroying our future. It is destroying our capacity to change. They are longing for that furniture and textile world. We can do more manufacturing, but it is going to have to be high tech manufacturing or unique craftsmanship. We won’t be building crate furniture or producing everyday textiles.
One of the major issues that the City and the County are going to have to take a stand on, is that if the Feds or the State try to impose regulations upon the local community, and they mandate that the local area enforce said regulation, then local administrations should not enforce that regulation, if it is not in the best interests of the people here on the local level. That is the attitude that it is going to take.
That kind of mindset might be beyond the grasp of the people in the Whitener building, because they look at the people in Raleigh as giving them the means to keep the bureaucracy alive. Hickory City officials seem to believe that Raleigh empowers them, while the officials in Conover are saying that business empowers us and Raleigh doesn't empower us. Raleigh, you empower Hickory, go empower Hickory and while you're doing that, we are going to be growing the business part of our community. Conover’s paradigm is the reality that needs to be embraced.
Look at the Manufacturing Solutions Center locating at the Conover Station. That is an LED of bright light for this area and that could be the genesis for a new kind of entrepreneurialism that we have not seen. And Conover grabbed ahold of it. Look at the Conover Station, Conover has a game plan designed for the future, while Hickory continues to grasp for the ghosts of the past.
In Defense of Hickory
There is a defense of Hickory. And we would do ourselves wisely, if we would articulate a message with some type of representation of what Hickory was and what Hickory is and can be in the future. Hickory was a remarkable place. It was not warm and fuzzy. In the 1990s, it was compared to Silicon Valley, because of its entrepreneurial spirit. Look at how fragile that was. Hickory is now a shell of what it once was. We have been hurt badly. A lot of it is just circumstance and we need to have an understanding for the reasons for those circumstances.
Hickory has been disparaged by all of the studies. Here's the study that says we're dumb. Here's a study that says we’re unhealthy. Here's a study that says we're not business friendly.
One of the things that we want to do is take it upon ourselves to make a counter argument to the studies that are out there. We want to reverse engineer those studies. We want to articulate: Are they measuring the wrong thing? What are their metrics?
Hickory is a very unique place. Look at a town such as Concord. It was a static, one horse town dominated by one business – Cannon Mills. It was a very simple life. If you weren’t in Kannapolis or Concord to do business with Cannon Mills, then you had no business being there.
Hickory, 25-plus years ago, was an area that offered unlimited possibilities for people who had an entrepreneurial spirit. It was a very aggressive and very innovative and very competitive environment. It wasn't a warm and fuzzy kind of place. It was a wide open business environment. We have lost so much of that tempo and that character over the last two decades.
Do you love Hickory? A lot of people just see what they can get out of it. To a lot of people it's just a place to live. If they loved Hickory, they would say, "I don't like the way this is happening and I think it can be done a better way," and they would take action to make the necessary changes that need to happen.
Let's come up with a way of defending Hickory. I believe that it is imperative that we defend Hickory and our honor. If people wake up and take it personally about the way we are being viewed by the outside world, then people who have an association with Hickory will, without even knowing it, begin to think about why they care about this community. And that is what we need to do. We need people to think about why Hickory is important to them?
Jay Adams conveyed to me about his father, a veteran from World War II :“
Post-World War II, my father worked in Kannapolis and was unhappy and then he got an opportunity to go into the fabric businesses and he found his way to Hickory. And when he brought me up here, first time in 1968, his enthusiasm for coming to Hickory was palpable. Dad was in his mid-30s in the mid 1940s when he came here and he loved Hickory, because it rolled. In the late 60s, Hickory was wide open. Dad said when he was in prison camp in World War II, the guys he was with just wanted to have the American dream. When we came to Hickory, Dad talked about the 250 furniture plants within 10 miles of where we were. He was like, isn’t that wonderful?As Scott Millar conveyed to the Future Economy Council last year:
Dad said that Hickory was a place where a guy with a high school education can make a fortune, lose it, and make it again. He said, ‘show me another place like this.’ It was the land of opportunity and for dad it was the place that dreams were made of.” That is what it was.
“The people in this area back in the day had the entrepreneurial spirit, because they thought that they could do the job better than their boss. That is what caused most of the companies to start up around here. They didn’t get along with their boss.”Today, we think that we need to educate the workforce, and we do, but is it the number one priority?. We are 14th out of 14 MSAs in the State in this regard. We are at the bottom. When we look at Raleigh, a university town, we see an area that manufactures “educated” people. These people are very uniform and structured. The Education system desires to impart the same uniformed “Structured” knowledge across-the-board. This objective means that everyone will come out with the same understanding of the same subject. Is that good for innovation and the creative process?
In the entrepreneurial town that Hickory was, people did not follow the above process. They would learn to do their job through on the job training. They would start thinking about ways that they could improve the product. They would go home and start tinkering and building a piece of furniture or two, then they would sell it. Next thing you know they had created a market for their product and they would have to find some people to help them, then they would have to find a bigger building to operate from, and next came the need for a new building – Bricks and Mortar. Look at all of the jobs that were created.
One thing that others have talked to me about related to our need to address our educational attainment issues relates to the possibilities of mashing up our innovative and entrepreneurial instincts to that deficiency and doing something that is not being done anywhere else. If we can do that, then we will have taken a big step towards showing the world why Hickory is not understood and we will have defined the value of Hickory as a center for innovation and ingenuity.
I do not want to limit the scope of possibilities, but when I think of a center of knowledge, I think of Thomas Jefferson’s original vision for the University of Virginia as an open center for knowledge. It was not to be devoted towards certifications, but instead a center for learning and finding information, where students were free to come and go as they wished. To me, lifelong access to extensive resources of knowledge at an affordable price should be the objective.
Hickory wasn’t a place 30 years ago where you came with education and made it. Hickory was a place where you came with initiative and made it. Your personal economic activity either paid off or it didn’t. And if it didn't pay off, then you learned from the experience, you weren’t disqualified. You got up on your feet and tried again. Hickory was the place where that could occur and that has great value. Harley-Davidson Skunk Works was here in Hickory. There was a reason for that!
In the End…
One of the biggest issues that I see is the lack of real congeniality and mutual respect amongst the people of this community. There isn’t an appreciation for one another’s roles in the make-up of the community. You need the people who supply the brains and you need the people who supply the brawn and both need to look out for one another’s interests.
You cannot mandate respect. This is not a new phenomenon. This has been going on for years. You have to have an appreciation for your fellow man in order to build a strong and viable eco-system. Experience shows that in order to be a good leader sometimes you need to dial back the intellect and be patient and listen more than you talk. Good listening skills are half of good communication. One needs be respectful and realize that the other guy, no matter their station in life, may see something that you have missed. You need to realize that if you earn their respect, they will be loyal to you and defend you. That is lost in Hickory.
You know, a lot of our fellow citizens have been beat down by the current economic challenges that we have faced in this community. They need their leaders to make them feel good about themselves. This does not come from gladhanding. They need to feel that they have the respect of the community and their contribution to making the City work is appreciated. People need that reinforcement of success, and we haven't had many successes in the community lately.
One of the things that I've seen from my experiences in life, is that if you go to work for a company and you have a bad apple in that company; the bad apple tends to stay, because the other people don't want to tolerate the bad apple, because they don't want to deal with them anymore. When you come into a community and there are a few bad apples that are keeping the community from progressing, those bad apples tend to stay, while the other people are picking up their bags and getting the hell out of there.
Unfortunately we are at that juncture and when the census data comes out, and if stories are written about Hickory's downfall, if that happens and there is a good possibility it will happen, then Hickory is going to be a poster child. Hickory could revert back and it is not out of the question that we could lose our MSA status. That would be remarkable and whether you judge it to be fair or not, it will have happened under the watch of Mayor Wright and City Manager Berry. It will be their legacy. It is the legacy of everyone who has been in power over this last decade, who has worked to maintain the status quo versus the need for urgent action.
As for the lesson to be learned; if you direct everything toward yourself and your thinking is that the whole aspect of any endeavor is to bring it home to yourself and not the greater community, it ain't good for the community. If your objectives are being misinterpreted, then you need to communicate better. But, insinuating that people's lying eyes are deceiving them goes against their better judgment and in the end no one is fooled.
In the past, Professional managers have come into the city and they have no ties to the city. There's not much commitment from these hired professionals. We need to have committed professionals in Hickory.
Hickory can’t be what it was, but it can be meaningful. It can be relevant. We must figure out how to take our available resources and optimize them. I believe that we can come up with innovations and make them go viral. It would be hard to pick out a community that has been hammered the way that Hickory has been hammered, but in spite of all the bad numbers and the ridicule, if you walk around this town, it does not feel all that bad. Hickory has stood on its own and will continue to stand on its own and we will continue to be a great place to live, if we address our issues with a sense of urgency, because if our structural economic issues are not addressed, then things can definitely get a lot worse.
Thank You and may God Bless this city and help us to help ourselves.
Special thanks to Harry Hipps, Joe Brannock, and Jay Adams. And to the others that helped contribute and influence this article.