Skin in the GameThis is the fourth year in which I will attempt to define where Hickory and its surrounding area presently stand here in the year 2012, where we have been over the past few years, and where trends show us to be headed. As always, I have tried to take into account opinions from across the socioeconomic strata and the demographics of this area. The Hound has become an entity that leads the local area in the discussion of the economic, social, and cultural issues that face us all. We drive the news! We have developed relationships with many of the structures of governance in our area and developed legitimacy and credibility through the relevance of what is discussed here. We have awoken the local media to the point where submissions from this blog become part of their thought process and we believe this is a very good development.
Though I talk about the Hound's relevance above, I would like to reiterate that this mission is not about any endeavor of personal ego or esteem. This mission is as stated about the vitality, growth, and future of this area we live in. We want to make every part of this city and metro area relevant. We truly believe that everyone has a role to play, unlike the actions of most of the leadership of this area has shown. In the past year, it has been unfortunate that we have not progressed much and much of this has been due to the misguided priorities and the impediments that certain power brokers and elected leaders have created.
Certainly there are significant achievements that we can be proud of. Over the last year, we have seen the unelected structure of governance continue to gain ground on positions that they have staked out in trying to resurrect the local economy back to steady growth, but the elected bodies have struggled to say the least. The Catawba County Chamber of Commerce has formulated several initiatives in conjunction with the educational bodies and the Economic Development Corporation that are bearing fruit. These associations have continued to carry out actions related to creating new economic realities. We can look to several positives created by CVCC, which include the on-campus practice hospital. We can look at tangible gains made by the Economic Development Corporation, which include the Turbo Coating Manufacturing facility. We can look to the steady progress made by the Appalachian State Partnership, Lenoir-Rhyne University, and the entities associated with the Champions of Education. What we have not seen is a game changer. When it comes to the creation of a game changing event and/or entity, it is the opinion of most that it is going to take the hands on guidance of community leadership, most importantly elected leadership, to make it happen. I don't want to include the Catawba County leaders or Conover in with this, because both of these entities have been very responsive to input by independent entities in the area.
The most exciting event that took place in 2011 was the Edison event sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce in conjunction with the Small Business and Technology Development Center. This is the reason why the Catawba County commission should not be thrown under the bus, because they have been very supportive of initiatives such as this and a couple of the members of the Commission were present for the final event and the Commission Chair Kitty Barnes even was a presenter for the award. People talk about optimism, yet don't seem to understand that they have to put skin in the game and everything isn't about politics. I don't understand why local politicos would be anything other than supportive of initiatives such as the Edison Project.
Conover put skin in the game with the Conover Station Project. While the City of Hickory has touted the Brownfield grants as a way to revitalize unused, blighted properties, Conover has already taken action with the revitalization of the Warlong building by retrofitting this old building towards modern realities and concerns. This building looks to be a new, modern center of economic activity in Conover. In my opinion this will end up being Conover's new Downtown with several new sites of Economic Commerce, like the Manufacturing Solutions Center, surrounding this building. Where the City of Hickory and its power brokers have demanded that Union Square must be Hickory's Downtown, Conover has decided to take a more realistic and open minded approach towards the realities of the future.
Stagnation through Economic UncertaintyFor most of the area, 2011 seemed to be a year of staleness. A year of going through the motions and plodding along. What most would define as being in a rut. There has to be a lot more happen than what I describe above in order to turn the local economy around. Risks are going to have to be taken in order to regain the ground that has been lost since the turn of the century. Certainly these need to be informed, educated, and calculated risks, but they most certainly will be endeavors that may create economic exposure due to the uncertainty in every aspect of modern economic realities. The deal is that we are exposed right now. We have been exposed for a decade. The problem is that many of the people in decision making positions in this community have not been pushed to make the necessary changes and seem to be waiting for something perfect to fall into their laps before a complete collapse takes place. What they can't seem to mentally grasp is that the hour has grown late and the chances of winning the lottery are slim. We have to create our future.
I have never understood why local officials want to attack national surveys that measure local economic conditions. It is like a kid that doesn't want to acknowledge their school report card. It is what it is. Man up! I especially can't understand it, because I am sure that most of these people made good grades when they were in school. These surveys are impartial statistical assessments that measure predefined categories of interest. They are created to help people, governments, and businesses understand where communities are succeeding and failing. They aren't contouring the survey to ensure our community fails. We need to face the fact that we are failing. They aren't going to change the methodology of the survey to curry favor with us. We are going to have to change our economic realities to climb the ladder of success. Communities have arisen from just as bad of circumstances as we find ourselves in today, but they had to take action to move forward.
If it were one or two surveys, then we might be able to legitimately ignore the data, but the problem is that we are at the bottom of just about every national economic survey and have been in the bottom 10% of these surveys for years. This past year we were listed as the 6th saddest metropolitan area in the United States in a Gallup-Healthway study... Forbes listed this metro as the 189th (out of 200) Best Places to do Business in the U.S.... And the Milken Group listed the Hickory Metro as the 189th (out of 200) Best performing Cities in the U.S.
Those that want to say that we are destined to plod back to economic growth can look at several cities in the Milken Survey that climbed several notches in the past year. You see 15 metro areas that have climbed at least 50 positions in 2011 and these cities aren't region specific. We all know that a lot of this is due to the problems with the manufacturing predicament we found ourselves in over the last decade, but we have failed to take action to evolve rapidly towards new economic paradigms and realities, when the writing was on the wall over a decade ago. We have faced the issues related to the uncertainty related to globalization of industry since 2001 and local officials didn't even acknowledge the problems were structural issues until 2008. We were constantly told that about the feeling that "this is gonna be our year." We needed a lot more than feelings then and we need more than feelings now. We need action.
Action speaks louder than wordsI hear it constantly that we need to quit talking about issues and take action on the issues. That we need to quit talking about problems and start taking action towards solutions. I have listened to fellow participants during brainstorming meetings that I have attended say that we are just talking in circles. I understand the frustrations, but we must all understand the need for good communication in a Democracy. And what these people, who complain about the lack of action, need to realize is that in the end they are just talking also. They haven't committed to any action.
What is the desire of many of the people who create the impediments towards progress? Many of these same people who constantly complain about too much talk and too little action are the same people who are quick on the trigger telling us what we as a community cannot do. They think we can tweek around the edges and rearrange the the deck chairs on the Titanic and everything will be just fine. They like the way things used to be and think they can take us back to some mind warped nostalgic era that they have dreamed of from their youth. What they won't admit to when they talk about how great Hickory was in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s is that Hickory was segregated and we aren't going back there. We have to enable ourselves to prosper under the modern realities associated with inclusiveness.
I agree that we have to take action. That action requires capital procurement. The Hickory City leadership went to Chattanooga, Tennessee in December and the leadership of Chattanooga flat out told the Hickory City leaders that they turned the city around through private contributions from businesses in the area, major individual benefactors, and public-private partnerships. Where have we seen major investments by such entities in this area?
We need leadership to have a heart-to-heart with local businessmen and tell them that they are going to have to put a little extra skin in the game, if they want to stop the implosion of this community. I can hear the vast majority of those businessmen saying, "How dare you. I do enough. I pay taxes, hire people, and work hard." Folks, we are in a hole and we are going to have to do some extraordinary things to get out of that hole. We don't need local elected officials to act as enablers for a certain segment of the business population who only want leadership to support their narrow personal interests and fail to take responsibility to ensure the vitality of this community's ecosystem. In the long run, if this community fails so will the long term viability of their business within the community.
We have to start looking at the big picture. I look to initiatives like Hickory By Choice 2030. The problem is that while the document serves a purpose, it doesn't create a mechanism to help institute an agenda big enough or specific enough to have meaning. Look what China does. They create very specific plans that have forward visions of 50 to 100 years. That doesn't mean that they are going to achieve 100% of those particular objectives. It means that they are forcing themselves to have a vision of the future through an implemented structural process. It is easier to set goals and tweak them than to try and piecemeal a future together haphazardly. Look at the way Hickory is laid out. Look at its old manufacturing structures. Hickory has not been strategically designed. It is a mess the way that Hickory has been laid out and there are people who want to keep moving forward in such a fashion. That is unreasonable. As we heard at the entrepreneurial summit a few weeks ago, there has never been a normal. We have to create the future. If we do not create the future, it will be created for us by external forces. We have so much to gain by joining together in a process of structured goals and development. Sure, these plans should be able to be reassessed, but to not have plans is to set yourself up to have others determine your future!
We need leaders who know how to leadOne of the biggest issues that we face in this community is the loss of confidence. Where does that come from? I believe that it comes from the lack of leadership in this community and the lack of vision. Some think that it is the duty of citizens to ask local leadership what they can do to help. I think that local leadership ought to be able to convey a vision to citizens and tell them how they can help implement that vision. That would create confidence.
Think about being on a battlefield. You don't have the Sergeant telling the Corporals and Privates that it is their duty to figure out how to implement the plan of attack. The Sergeant is handed a battle plan and he informs the soldiers of what is expected of them. If anything goes wrong, then the highest ranking officer improvises tactics and communicates the plan to the soldiers. If the Sergeant cannot fulfill this important obligation, then he is removed and the next highest ranking officer makes the decisions.
As citizens of this community our input should be expected and appreciated, but in the end we must understand that elected leaders will be the decision makers. If they abdicate their responsibility, then it is incumbent upon the citizens to remove those who are not fulfilling their responsibility. Our elected leaders are paid a salary, benefits, and receive perks, privileges, and stature that regular citizens are not afforded. I have heard these benefits of office belittled many times as a stipend. These elected officials should realize that we have citizens in this community that are living on less than what this compensation affords. Many of our local citizens are doing without health insurance in these times. No, these elected officials are handsomely rewarded and if they don't think the job is worth their time, then they should step aside for someone who appreciates what is mentioned above.
Think about the issue of creating an economic entertainment dynamic within our community. As an example of the juxtaposition that those associated with the Hickory Hound find themselves in versus Hickory City Officials. We have talked about an amphitheater that would accommodate 3,000 people minimum with the possibility of 5,000. We believe this could bring value by bringing people from other communities into our area to attend concerts and spend money while visiting the area. Instead, the City decides to put up a tent on Union Square as a multi-purpose facility for the farmer's market and they say it can be used as an amphitheater. It is all about semantics. Mayor Wright says on the radio that he understands that some people in the community want a 5,000 seat amphitheater... well if he had his wish we would have a 17,500 seat arena for sports. You see the difference is that we aren't touting this idea, because we want a personal amusement. We are talking about an economic driver, while the Mayor is belittling our idea by personalizing it around himself.
If community leaders would get behind an effort such as Visionaire Jets and help them get Financing by whatever means and tie the economic incentives that we see being offered to other outside entities to job creation by Visionaire in our area, then you would see immediate excitement take root. I believe if we saw a Microlending function as an economic incentives package tied to paybacks and clawbacks, then we would see entrepreneurial development in our area.
Burke County, with an “entrepreneurial certified” effort, now has $378,000 of microlending in place with over 14 clients. This started several years ago with a very successful effort in Valdese led by their City Manager, Jeff Morse. The initial funding was from “One North Carolina”. This program was so effective that it was followed by a roll out to the entire county with additional funding from the "Gold Leaf Foundation" fund. The same mechanism and board that had learned in Valdese was left in place for the county wide effort.
We need to lose the egos. We need for local leaders to stop looking to themselves as politicians first. We don't need this "Bring it to me mentality," that breeds a sense of entitlement that everything has to be filtered through some absurd closed and arbitrary system. Leaders should not be waiting for ideas to be brought to them. They should be actively seeking ideas and fleshing them out. And decisions should not be manipulated to fit personal agendas. This is America, we don't need or deserve a King.
People are looking for signs of hope that the area is turning around and I think if we did have some local initiatives instituted by the people we elect and brought to fruition, then you would start seeing excitement build up and people in the community talking about how we are turning it around. If economic optimism were achievable through political platitudes and propaganda, then we would already have achieved it.
Its time to get RealIn hearing this week that we were the eighth worst metropolitan area to find a job, we found a local media that was trying to find a way to not be so negative about the circumstance. The message from the media is that we are going to take this bad news and turn it around. The unfortunate reality is that we have already been down this path umpteen times over the last several years. As I pointed out previously, we have bounced around the dregs of these surveys for the better part of a decade. Until 2008 no one admitted that we had structural issues, and since admitting that we do have structural issues it has been a constant drumbeat that we are going to turn it around. What makes you think that this is the time when we have bottomed out and are going to start addressing the issues that will start us towards turning the situation around?
When looking at that U.S. News and World Reports survey, the reporter states that the problems with the California cities that make up much of that bottom 10 list are related to the Real Estate bust and its lingering Depression. Our local officials and media have glommed onto this factoid and stated that our problem has nothing to do with the Real Estate Depression. I think they are missing something here also. Yes, our property values did not spike the way that they did in California, Florida, or Nevada; but haven't you seen the same issues they face with houses for sale and/or that have been foreclosed upon in this area. Have you seen the statistics related to people being underwater on their mortgages. This means that residential homes in our community are overvalued. This makes it easier for those who are deeply in the hole to walk away from their home. It also means that it is harder for those who don't want to take the hit on their credit to leave the community to seek employment elsewhere. And most all of us know people who are paying two mortgages. Eventually, if the economic momentum is not turned around, you will see housing prices and property values fall drastically in our area. What does that portend for those who have built significant equity in their property?
One problem that many of us see is that we have a local media that has been quick on the trigger to blame Washington and Raleigh, but refuse to make critical comments about what is happening here in this area. Many of us ascertain that this is because no one in Raleigh or Washington is listening to/reading what they have to say, but they will be getting a phone call or the cold shoulder if they ask questions deemed to be hostile towards community leaders. So what we have seen is that they basically hand the local leaders the microphone and let them have an open platform to direct their own interview or in the case of the print media submit whatever material they want unfettered.
Several Million dollars have been spent to compensate local leaders over the past decade. Criticism is naturally a part of accepting a public position. Think about a Professional Football team. You have a coach and a quarterback. If you have a terrible record, 4-12 or worse for several years, how long do they keep their positions? Does the media go around talking about how they are doing the best they can? Most of you have seen what happens. Do you keep doling out millions of dollars in compensation waiting for circumstances to change or do you aggressively demand accountability or seek to change circumstances. Who is in charge? The players or the owners?
In ConclusionThe things that are said on this blog are not presented lightly. I don't take joy in bluntly communicating this message to you. We are in a dead serious situation in dead serious times. The time is long past due for a put up or shut up agenda. It is time for accountability. The theme of 2012 is that we need to implement strategies that promote and exhibit decisive meaningful action... not padding your buddy's pocket... not moving forward your personal agenda... not making decisions based upon personal whims and fancies... Community First! We need to see actions this year that aren't related to low hanging fruit. We need some of that beautiful fruit that we have to climb the tree to obtain.
How long are we supposed to be patient? How long are we supposed to wait?
May God Bless this Community in the Upcoming Year!