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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The State Of Hickory 2012

Skin in the Game
This 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 Uncertainty
For 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 words
I 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 lead
One 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 Real
In 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 Conclusion
The 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!


harryhipps said...

The "China" model: The government either builds a small city from nothing with all new infrastructure, businesses and residences or rebuilds a dilapidated area then populates it according to plan.

The "American core model": Private developers and investors create a neighborhood with a mix of retail, office/business, and residential properties with the local government cooperating on zoning, street and utility infrastructure, incentives to demolish dilapidate areas etc. Then it is marketed to individuals interested in these properties and amenities.

The "Hickory model": The people who have assets pump their bucks out of Hickory to enjoy the mountains and the beach. The government role is to say "hope" more than Obama. We hope the population remains stable and maybe a few more retirees looking for cheap housing and cost of living will come here to die.

Silence DoGood said...

The factors that have lead Hickory and the people of this area to where they are have been a long time in the making. The solutions to those problems, as opposed to the singular ‘game changer’ quick fix that is held to be such a lofty and noble ideal as what Hickory needs in order to change direction and bask in the glow of providence once more, are many.

In my mind, there needs to be a prolonged multiple steps progress, not unlike a twelve stepper, to put the Hickory MSA on more favorable statistical charts. Short, medium, and long range targets need to be identified and the steps necessary to attain them needs to be fomented. I’m not saying that hasn’t happened already, but if it has, that certainly hasn’t been the focus of an episode of the Hal Row show nor has it appeared as viable commentary in any news media outlet. I’m quite certain that if it existed, it would have been made mention of on this blog. And not only should there be a series of progressive steps and processes to facilitate success, but they should intertwine and build upon each other. Recognizing that some things may work and others may not, but the process going forward should be perpetual, strengthening, and empowering; not just to business, but to all people.

Listening is just as important an aspect of communication as talking, perhaps more so. The concept of listening seems to be missing from the equation however. What I’m speaking to is, the air of conflagration that surrounds council meetings when anyone says something that runs contrary to the official position or premise. But there are those that are simply going to have their own way, regardless. Having an idea doesn’t make a good idea, just on the basis of who you are or the title you hold.

Yes, I realize that there are any number of seminars, discussions, and focus groups out there that are trying achieve consensus on how this is supposed to be done. There seem to be some good basic concepts being talked about and proposed, but discussion seems to be the lone all encompassing aspect. In the politics/business associative collaboration, there seems to be no collaborative effort exuded, unless you’re known to the politicians and enjoy ‘most favored status’ or have a relative as a member of that sanctioning body.

In that regard, what is to be done? We can't make them play together nice. The only thing we can do is change the players on one team.

James Thomas Shell said...

I think those are excellent points DoGood. I like the multi-pronged approach of short-medium-long range plans that you address. I think you probably understand that Council Meetings are just ceremonial. At this point, they have been rendered moot from the governance standpoint. The only way they become relevant is when a citizen or a representative of a citizen interject interesting/relevant subject material into the pageant. The Mayor certainly likes to use this coronation of protocol as a means to grandstand/obfuscate/bully what I believe he considers his subjects. It is about respect and I don't think, for the most part, that the council respects the people they are supposed to be serving.

As far as the term "Game Changer." I don't think it is a term that should be summarily dismissed. I don't think that it will be an action taken as a present/future tense condition necessarily. The Game Changer might be something that we don't understand the resulting shift of gravity/momentum of until after the resultant inertia has developed. That can be nebulous, but I think most of us will understand when it begins to occur and then we can focus upon this force and help it move this energy forward in a positive way. Of course their are the impediments related to the "Bring it to me"/ego driven impediments that think everything has to be funneled through the top of the pyramid, but maybe time will help remove the obstacles. (Cross your fingers). The most significant Game Changer might be the one that might be the most obvious.. The one that no one wants to address... The Jabba the Hut impediment staring them right in the face. Maybe?

Silence DoGood said...

When I used the term 'game changer', what I had in mind was something that made itself a stand alone pivotal start/stop point. And thinking of it in that regard, the associative term 'missing link' brings itself to mind.

Those that challenge evolution for their own reasons always want to see the 'missing link'; a singular manifestation to explain and account for evolutionary theory. Of course there isn't any such thing. It was thousands of missing links, occuring gradually, slowly across time. In that regard what I had in mind was slowly pulling ourselves from the primal ooze of what Hickory is in a series of steps, across time. Hopefully, building stability and confidence again in the process along the way.

But reading objectively, you are quite likely correct!!

harryhipps said...

To me it seems that the "game changer" is not likely to be an event or even a couple of events. It is a leader or group of leaders that can execute something large enough and visible enough to draw widespread attention and be seen as a point to build.
I think the key is the person or group of people who actually do get something done.

My opinion is that we have all the necessary ingredients (yes, money is thin but it could be had for the right thing(s)). What we don't have is a leader with a long term commitment to create a Ballentyne, Birkdale Village or something of a similar scale.

There are a number of ideas that could be great, developing communities around railroads, creating a hub of businesses that manufacture components of various sorts, creating a zone for craftspeople , and other ideas I've heard about all are great - but who can rally the wagons and get 'er done?

Looking to council is futile and we will be darn fortunate if they don't impede progress. Local developers won't do much more than refurbish some dilapidated properties or make another small strip mall. Who, it seems to me, is more important than what.

Silence DoGood said...

I think both of you are right in context. I think this whole concept of a game changer is being embraced by the politicans as that one thing done, and then they can sit back and bask in the glory that is Rome, er... Hickory. This one thing, this pivotal event/action is the keystone to success. Reading and listening to the notion of game changer fomented, that is the operative notion that keeps striking me in the back of the head.

But I think they've got it all wrong. It is doubtful that one crucial event will be identified as such when it is put into or takes place. It will be a precipitating event from which all other will grow. It will become a game changer, but it will be humbly clothed and be but a foot step amongst the others in the journey. The significance won't be obvious until after the fact. Even though it can be contrived as a positive event just prior to or during inception.

James Thomas Shell said...

And that is the point I am trying to make. If they focus on one action, then with what I have seen from empirical evidence, they will be sure to fail. Like putting all of ones eggs in one basket. Look at the initiatives that have taken place around here over the last decade. They have been one dimensional. I won't be redundant here.

That is the reason why I point to an entity such as an Amphitheater. I am not saying that such a venue would be the missing link as you mention. I do believe will be ancillary developments around such a venue and it can enhance what is already here. Restaurants and other hospitality ventures would spring up around it or the ones already here will see more business. Think about all of the Country Music lovers coming to town to see their favorite act or if the guy that makes a living off of making fun of Hickory comes back to do an event.

Let's say that the cheapskates that run the show around here had an awakening and decided to finally invest in a broadband infrastructure. People/businesses would certainly look to that a positive economic development. That can create the inertia, I am speaking of. This type of investment would be a valuable link to the future. It is something we will eventually need. Why not invest in it now, instead of waiting for the costs to escalate?

The problem is that we have leadership accustomed to playing Checkers in a world of 3-D chess.

Silence DoGood said...

That is very intriguing, what you've just said. "They'll be sure to fail." We've never stopped to consider or even broach this subject before, but, perhaps that is the object of the exercise. Consider this. I think we can all agree that the old money runs fairly deep in these parts. If you run the outsiders out, they abandon their investments, and the capital that held them here, that makes the one thing that has always been the cash crop for Hickory, the real estate, acquirable at pennies on the dollar. Then all the 'old money' has to is hold on to it and wait. They've regained control of what it is they desire, which is the City and all that it is once again. They've managed to reduce or eliminate the competition. All is right with the world. It's so deviously simple, is that why we've neglected to recognize the attributes?

Sure it's another of those maniacal conspiracy theories. And surely anyone that would think that can’t be hitting on all 8. But let me remind you something the Mayor was quoted as saying in the HDR a few years ago with regard to Charlotte. Paraphrased, it went something akin to, “We aren’t Charlotte. We don’t want to be Charlotte. We’re perfectly content being the size we are. We don’t want to grow like that.” I think that was pretty much the gist of the commentary. Now consider this. Everything we’ve talked about has involved growth, expansion, and a widening of possibilities and the bringing of new people and ideas. And if you read between those lines of the conversations in Chattanooga, most of the retort from the Hickory contingent involved maintenance of what is, polishing it a little bit, and nothing far reaching or broad in scope. Thinking about those things in that limelight, it doesn’t sound quite so absurd any more, does it?

James Thomas Shell said...

Yes, it sounds absurd to me. Zero x 100 = What? You decimate your marketplace, then what do you have left. You muscle everyone out, then what would they come back. How many generations would such stupidity take to recover from. We are already losing all of our young people and I don't see them clamoring to come back. Most don't want anything to do with the place.

Driving down the value (price) of real estate will drive down the equity, and thus the wealth, of the owners. It becomes an cascading implosion that one will never recover from in ones lifetime. Hopefully no one is dumb enough to put oneself through such self-imposed stress.

Silence DoGood said...

Fair enough, I asked for that. However how do those things you've listed vary in significant degree to what is happening now, or in the past decade?

James Thomas Shell said...

Believe me DoGood, that type of cynicism is fair game around here, but empirical evidence points to no plan, living day-to-day and doing something cheap and piecemeal.

It is hard for those of us who like to have goals and plans to understand those who do not.

The problems is more like that they have surrounded themselves with a court of yes men and when someone comes along and is critical of what they say, then they mentally fall to pieces and move towards an attack mode.

Myself, when someone comes up to me and fawns over me telling me how wonderful I am and never questions what I do, then I start wondering what they are up to. No one likes being criticized, but if you are and it doesn't cause personal thought and reassessment, then you are an idiot and there is no helping you. It should help one to hone their objectives and actions.

Silence DoGood said...

It certainly does and I find nothing wrong in criticism. And while I or we even may be quick to challenge what it is we see, what about what we can not? Simply because it is unseen, does that mean it likewise doesn't exist? It never hurts to consider the why of any circumstance. A series of seemingly random and unrelated actions that somehow lead toward the same eventual end or goal? Complicity is completely out of the question.