The Mayor and Council's record on economic development. - authored by Harry Hipps - June 25, 2014
If you were going to invest $40,000,000 would you not check out the fund manager? If you were going to put 40 million into a business venture would you not want a proven, experienced manager for that business? Of course you would. And that is part of what the issue of the proposed bonds for Hickory is about. There are more issues of course and I will address those in succeeding posts.
The Mayor and Council have long touted their conservative, frugal management of Hickory’s finances. Now, apparently they are prepared to abandon that in favor of an Obama style stimulus plan. Leaving aside for now the merit and prospects for the success of the plan, which is designed for economic development, what has the past record of the Mayor and Council been? Bear in mind that Council votes almost in total lockstep with little dissent and as Alder Patton once said “We are all of one mind.”
Hickory was hit hard in 2000 by globalization which drastically shrunk the furniture, textile, and fiber optic businesses that had been long term pillars of the local economy. It wasn’t our fault and we weren’t the only city or area to experience this. We couldn’t control a large structural change like this, but we can control our response to it. Data provided by Thom in this blog in past articles showed that after that point when the national economy went up, Hickory went up less, and when the country turned down, Hickory declined farther. For about 7 years, Mayor Wright failed to comprehend the nature of the problem. Years of public statements like, “I think this will be Hickory’s year... Hickory is turning around... People tell me things are getting better...’’ Showed a total lack of awareness of what had happened to the economy. We lost years because of the lack of understanding, and having too much pride to admit we had a problem.
Then our local leadership decided that Hickory should become a retirement village. Despite the fact that the US is aging and locally we were destined to have more older folks anyway, the City actively pursued “active seniors” despite warnings from many that this was a losing strategy. God bless old folks, but medical care, cheap cost of living, and close proximity to the mountains and beaches has proven to be no panacea for us. I personally asked who would buy my house when I retire? A 75 year old person? We need younger people, working and raising families to have a vibrant community and now the Mayor and Council have flip flopped and belatedly come to the right conclusion after years of pursuing a failed strategy that has cost us time, momentum, and money.
Then came the assault on nightclubs and entertainment. Club owners came under the scrutiny and ire of the local government and ordinances were made more stringent. The Mayor even said on the radio that he didn’t want big clubs that would bring young people to Hickory from miles around. Only small local clubs would be tolerated. Why we wouldn’t want acts that come to Charlotte (like comedians such as Jon Lovitts, Damon Wayans and others as well as more popular musical acts) in Hickory is beyond me. But the strategy has worked, few big acts come here and our young people go to Charlotte in droves rather than stay here and spend their money here. And retail outlets and restaurants in Charlotte are getting a bigger share of Hickory’s younger dollars and eventually, why not just move and save the drive?
The Mayor and Council do not control everything but their misunderstanding, heavy handed management, and lack of understanding and vision is a big part of the problem. People want an open climate to pursue THEIR dreams and build the life THEY want, not be dictated to from above. Council’s actions and attitudes have really hurt the culture and driven people off. And I for one, do not believe that a few out of town trips have made them sages and seers of the future. Do you really believe a few sightseeing trips and discussions really taught them what made the other cities tick? I mean if someone spent a day in Hickory, looking around and talking to City leaders would they really know what makes Hickory Hickory? I doubt it. And I’m not willing to bet 40 million on it.
Finally I would note that, as Steve Ivester pointed out at a recent Council meeting, the Sails on the Square went 70% over budget (if we have accurate figures which is in doubt because City government has not been forthcoming on the actual expenses and has actually harassed people who would like to know). These, I assume, would be the same people that would be overseeing these "Inspiring Spaces" projects. Can you picture a 70% cost overrun on the sidewalk to downtown (linear park)? That project in particular is grossly overpriced for any perceived benefit as it is, but a 60 or 70 million final pricetag is a costly boondoggle we can’t afford.
The bottom line is this: the Council and Mayor’s past record on economic development and executing projects has been poor and now they are asking the voters to put faith and trust in their vision for the future, that these projects will be effectively done and will lead to economic revival. With the record they have on economic development, I wouldn’t bet the farm. There are solutions for Hickory, I don’t think a $40 million open-ended credit card is the right solution.