I went to a meeting, which was basically a brainstorming session last week. This meeting was a give and take discussion that attempted to discuss the issues of where we are in Hickory and Catawba County and what's it going to take to kickstart the area back towards economic progress and prosperity.
I thought that much of the discussion was very constructive. There were some things that I really to my core disagreed with, but most of what was discussed was on target. What disappointed me a little was that it seems like we are still talking
about issues from three and four years ago and some of the ideas were firmly
entrenched with what I perceive as an inside the box perspective. I mean people were still talking about the four year university thing. Might as well talk about Santa Claus while we're at it.
I interjected a point about the lack of capital in our area and the mediator of the discussion asked if there was a lack of capital and some people chimed in that there wasn't a lack of capital, but a lack of access to capital. Well, I'm sitting there thinking, what the heck did they think I was talking about. I know that you can call these empty buildings sitting along the railroad tracks a capital investment, but do they have any substantial current value and is their value increasing as we speak? Under current economic conditions can you turn them into substantial cash assets?
Of course I was talking about the lack of access to credit. I personally know businesses that had credit lines that were cut off even though they were in good standing. I know people and businesses that can't get a loan without putting up substantial amounts of assets or equity, in comparison to the loan amount, as collateral. That makes it hard to get new businesses, or ventures, off the ground. There is no guaranteed investment in a good or bad economy. There is always risk associated with any investment, but it sure seems that investors demand guaranteed results these days in a manner that they didn't demand in the past. There was an excellent comment made that Historical Regional Capital is gun shy and shell shocked! And I believe that comment cut right to the core of the biggest issue we face in this community, when it comes to getting back on track economically.
Another excellent point was made that we have lost the Old Timey paternalism, where business leaders used to take care of the community and their employees. Local industry used to be family owned. During the Depression of the 1930s, this area weathered the storm better than others, because business owners took care of the community and invested in the community. It is my personal perception that this is true. I was taught an abbreviation a few years ago, TFB; which stands for Trust Fund Baby. These are people who inherited property, assets, and income associated with people who owned major companies. Many of these TFBs of late haven't seen any worth in investing in this community and many of them have left town and cut all ties with the area. Many of the abandoned buildings in the area are associated with TFBs who have an out of sight, out of mind attitude towards their financial interests/obligations towards this community.
There was a summation that some of our economic woes are self perpetuating. We dug ourselves into an economic hole and it's hard not to keep digging sometimes. If we were more positive that things will get better. I look at some of the current marketing initiatives that have so far failed to gain traction. I will be told that they need more time. I'm looking at traction and momentum and there currently is none. I talked with a friend about what this marketing campaign is all about. It is about instilling confidence. But, the people behind this campaign have to be very careful, because those who push confidence without substance (delivering goals/accountability) are eventually looked upon as confidence men -- ie Con Men -- and this leads to a loss of trust and hampers any such efforts in the future. We have to demand tangibility and accountability.
I think I have proven myself to be a patient man and I am patient about all of these initiatives, but we need some definable goals. Some of the statistics I hear cited are based upon government numbers that we know are cooked. The real unemployment rate is not 8.1% nationally or 10.5% here in Catawba County. The real numbers are much higher than that. I can speak of people I know who are late fiftyish to sixty-something and could work, but are unemployed, as in not earning income from employment and they are not counted in these stats. Or what about sole-proprietors whose businesses are no longer viable. There are a lot of folks out there like this or caught in the crossfire in some other manner.
People say things aren't that bad. In the Great Depression there were soup lines and people were starving. The modern day soup kitchen is the WIC food program (Food Stamps). If this program weren't there, and I am not an advocate per se, but these people would be forming the soup kitchen line or starving.
Here is a look at the civil labor force here in Catawba County - http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/series/NCCATA5LFN?cid=29272
The statistics above do not show progress in employment. Since 2009, the civilian labor force has actually dropped by over 3,000 people. That is 3,000 people that aren't working. In February 2001, the labor force was 82,245 people in Catawba County. Now it is 73,250. That is the lowest number since May 1991 (although the numbers were similar all the way up until 1994).
I just go by the numbers. I do gain value in what these guys say. I get the perspective of people who live inside the box. I told Harry, who was present at this meeting, that I got the feeling that most of that discussion was "Inside the Box" talk and wondered why they were still looking to the box to solve the problems we face. Harry said it is because they own the box. That was a simple, but enlightening, comment. The problem that we face here in Hickory and Catawba County is that the decision makers have a vested interest in protecting the current system (the box) that brought them to power and continues to empower them.
It reminds me of a meeting a year and a half ago where a participant stated that he liked Hickory as it is. Yeah, we have some problems, but it's coming back. We just need to tweak a few things. Hickory was great back in the 1960s. We just need to get back to that. That is pretty much the gyst of what a lot of our older citizens in the community believe. Now, think about being African-American or Hispanic and some semi-retired business owner on cruise control is telling you that we just need to go back to the 1960s or even 1950s. That would scare me to death, wouldn't it you?
No, I believe that we need to move towards the modern realities of the 21st century. I have heard talk about helping and protecting existing local businesses. I hope to god we aren't talking about a bailout for these folks. If directing capital towards existing businesses were the answer, then we wouldn't be in the shape that we are in today. What we need to do is work towards starting new businesses and industries in our area. I'm not saying that we should abandon existing business, but I don't see where we get by funneling resources their way, when I haven't seen any accountability mechanisms built into these processes yet.
You know these businessmen, that were at this meeting and others like this, are looked at as being stakeholders and so their thoughts are brought to the front of the table, but as someone pointed out, look at the lack of diversity in that room and look at the age. I think that it will take a generation to fully fix the current and near term issues we face. In a generation, I will be 65 years old and many of the people in that room will be upwards of 80 years old. All of these instituted policies are going to affect people who are kids today. We need to think about their interests and not our own. They are the true stakeholders of these initiatives, aren't they?
Maybe I'm wrong. It is just my personal perspective, but it seems that much of the leadership in our community are stuck with mindsets cemented in the realities of today and this contorts their vision of what is headed our way in the future. We need to think about what the pertinent issues are going to be down the road and create objectives and figure out endeavors to address the issues we face 5, 10, 20 years down the road. If we do this, we can get ahead of the curve and wholly profit by doing so.
I do believe that we can get back on the road to growth, sooner rather than later, but we have dug a deep hole and it is going to take time to get back to prosperity. People are seeing their resources dwindle and they don't like it. Most people are looking towards stop gap measures, not real growth. I just don't see substantial growth happening in the short term... would be awesome, but it isn't realistic. If there are short term fixes, then by all means let's do it; but in the end, we need to fix the systemic issues that we face and you and I know that is a long haul. But, what is certain is that we have to have a community wide effort to move forward and the sooner, the better.