There’s been a good deal of chatter concerning the low rating Hickory received in the Gallup survey. The “public face” by many of the region’s leaders has been to not believe that the survey is accurate and to declare their love for the area. Well, many people do love the area and many like myself have longstanding roots here. But many people I’ve read on social media, talked to in person, or have heard conversing do feel stuck in a dead end area. And to live in denial is not helpful.We need honest assessments about where we are and what we need to do to bring vibrancy back to our community.
The Mayor and others are touting the Inspiring Spaces project as the ticket to economic revitalization. It won’t do it. There are some worthy projects on the list and some real dogs as well. And cities do need to move forward on some infrastructure improvements to keep a decent quality of life. Hickory has some great gems. I know I will leave some out but: the SALT block, the Museum of Art, the Hickory Community Theater, the Choral Society, the Western Piedmont Symphony, LR, the lake, our natural beauty, good location, climate and more….
We also have some real downsides: poor educational attainment by a large segment of the population, worse than average unemployment, wages, and household wealth. These things work in tandem to create our low rating. Poor education correlates with poor income which correlates with poor eating choices which correlates with poor health, which correlates with lower satisfaction with life and so on. We have some other negatives that I believe impact our well being that I will list below.
I don’t believe that city amenities are the key to reversing our fortunes. I will offer the following observations and hope others may add their keener analysis to my list.
First, we have a corporate community that does not build clusters. If you look at Charlotte for example, you see that they are a banking city, but they also try to add related businesses to the community like insurance companies. It’s not banking, but if you have banks, insurance companies, venture capital and related businesses you can attract talent that will work for a company, but if they want or need a change there are options and the whole sector can keep the talent pool working without having to leave town as their only option. When you have clusters, not just individual businesses, you can feed off each others ideas, talent pool, and synergies instead of being a collection of lone rangers.
Charlotte is a Duke Energy town. But they are working to build an energy cluster with some solar (manufacturing as well as generation), batteries and other related industries.
The airport (despite the management problems) is seeking to become a multimodal hub with air, railroad, and trucking being facilitated so that even goods that come by ship into Charleston can flow from this hub.
What is our corporate community doing (with city, private individuals, and investors) doing? Not much that I can see. We have MDI, a major food distributor, a tortilla manufacturer, a couple of commercial bakeries and you would think we could build on this core. What businesses are CommScope helping to move here? They are good community members and give to arts, and charity groups, but why aren't we building clusters like the old furniture and textile guys did?
Secondly, our media is pitiful. The radio does present a good local talk show, but the tv station is Mickey Mouse and shows shopping shows and drivel most of the day. I cringe to think about what someone from another city thinks when looking at our local tv to see what’s happening in Hickory. The local newspaper has no idea of investigative reporting and really won’t dig into issues in depth. Don’t look for them to win awards like the Charlotte paper anytime soon.
Thirdly, we have a risk adverse culture. Innovation depends on taking risk, and some of the most prosperous regions of the country have people who actually are proud of working on start up companies that failed, because they realize that it’s one form of education. No one likes to fail, but if you’re too scared to try you certainly aren’t going to be an innovator. We used to have a good deal of innovation, but no longer.
Fourthly, the City’s strategy of making us a ‘retirement village’ has been too successful. While they have changed their tune lately (with some kudos to the Hound for the focus on the issue), we are older and younger people have shunned Hickory. It’s too bad they didn’t have the foresight years ago to see what they have sown. Driving away a good music and entertainment community hasn’t done much to gain younger interest in Hickory. And it won’t be easy to change Hickory’s image.
Finally, and most worrisome to me is the culture of apathy. Too many people believe the “system” is rotten, not concerned with their situation, and only the “important” people will get their concerns addressed. So they either leave or accept mediocrity, getting by as best they can and chalking it up to just living in sad times.
Maybe I haven’t seen all the picture here and I don’t claim to have every solution. But, though I love this area and some of the great people I know here, we have a malaise here that I don’t find to the same degree in some of the places I visit. I believe Hickory can turn this around, but it will be lengthy and difficult. Denial won’t get us anywhere; work, commitment, and vision will.
Hickory Metro 2014 - Tied for 4th Most Miserable in the United States