This is the sixth consecutive year, I will attempt to describe where Hickory's Economy and Culture are currently at. Normally, I have done this report early in the year, but because of circumstances I haven't gotten around to it until now. This is my perspective of what I see in the community.
The last time that I did this report was in February 2013. We were coming off of the Ward Specific Voting Referendum that failed by a very narrow margin. We were headed towards municipal elections that were very vitriolic and there were very definite reasons for that. Many people are not happy with the direction of this community.
We have recently seen the community pass a $40 million Bond Referendum that has been stated to be an "Economic Revitalization" plan. We have seen Hickory Inc. throwing millions of dollars towards projects that they hope will turn the community's fortunes around. They are throwing every chip they've got on the table and writing every IOU they can in what they have described as actions of immediacy. As one person said, "Hickory's time is now."
Hickory Inc.'s storyline of 2014 involves the redevelopment and repurposing of the Old Mill buildings along the Railroad tracks towards the city core. The Old Hollar Hosiery Mill building and The Moretz Hosiery Mill Building have become and are becoming restaurant and retail shops. The Hollar Mill building even has an event center. The Lyerly Hosiery Mill Building is the new location of the logistics company "Transportation Insight". The Piedmont Wagon building is going to be the home of some light manufacturing and office space. No one can possibly say that these are negative developments.
Where one can question the above is when they look towards the tangled web of political involvement and the perception that these businesses have taken over the political process in the community. In the referendum that just occurred, we see that those involved in these developments gave fairly large (for a city this size) political contributions to the organization that pushed the referendum and in return it looks like they are reaping huge rewards. By many that will be explained away as the reality of modern day politics.
People complain about this type of political activity on the National level when talking about George Soros or the Koch brothers, Democrats have a big issue here in North Carolina with Art Pope playing the role he does in legislation, but everything gets explained away as good business practices here on the local level. 'Incentives are a necessary evil and reality in attracting and maintaining industry,' we are told. But, what about when it is combined with campaign contributions?
We are told that we are getting back on track in the community. Catawba County's unemployment rate is reported at 6.4% -- magically down a full 1% a few weeks before the election, just as happened before the primary. 6.4% is still .6% higher than the national average, but is better than anything we have seen since April 2008 and way down from the 15% that we saw in the first two months of 2010.
The problem is that when we look at the Civilian Labor Force statistics, we see 71,001 people are in the Labor Force in the latest reported month. Unfortunately, the Labor Force is down over 1,000 people since the beginning of the year and more than 2,700 people since the beginning of 2013. The Labor Force is down over 4,400 people since back when we had those 15% unemployment rates. If we calculated the unemployment rate utilizing the workforce of around 75,400 people (rounded) that we had back at the beginning of 2010 and the current employed statistic of 66,457 (extrapolated from current statistics), then we would see an unemployment rate of 11.9%. Better, but not even close to the rosy scenario portrayed.
Now, some people will say that those people retired out of the workforce, but that has been debunked many times by many economists including the former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Paul Craig Roberts. Older people are having to continue to work, because of the loss of retirement wealth related to the 2008 Wall Street meltdown. The real cost of living has also risen significantly over that span. The people that have been left out of the workforce are the young people looking to enter the workforce. The numbers are also skewed by part time and seasonal statistics.
Personally, I have known several long term unemployed people. A few found jobs after nearly a year of being out of work and a few more have been relegated to finding odd jobs to bring in a little income so that they could survive. I have a friend that talks about being on the Obama Diet. He eats what he can afford and he says, "that ain't much."
The reality is that the economy did not grow in anything other than an anecdotal or compartmentalized way. Once again we have seen a few businesses open and a few close, but nothing of real significance. The workforce numbers related above show continued stagnation. The number of employed in Catawba County has hovered around 66,000 people for several years now. There is no sign of a breakout.
We continue to see people working harder to try to maintain income at the same time that costs have escalated. Most people have certainly had to downscale their lifestyle. Wishful thinking seems to be the hope of the day. Reduced expectations and acceptance have become the new long term reality.
I think that many of us have come to the "Acceptance" stage in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's model of the five stages of grief. Many of us have felt grief about the direction of this community as it continues down a path of post-industrialization. Those of us that have addressed the realities of the past decade have been mislabeled by the misguided as pessimists or even worse, we have been said to hate the community.
These words, actions, and mindsets come from people who are suffering a similar fate to our own, but are stalled on the track. They are living in a world of denial and/or anger.
In the Kübler-Ross model, acceptance means that everything is going to be alright. People have come to terms that what has happened has happened and then open their minds to the possibilities related to current reality. Maybe it is time to cut your losses and move. You'll have to sell your house. You might have to walk away from it. The family might have to live apart, while you seek opportunities elsewhere. But, what people realize is that they aren't in bondage to their current circumstances. Of course this stage will vary based upon personal circumstances, but the common thread is that people have to keep moving forward... and society will keep moving forward.
Over the years that I have done the Hickory Hound, I have come to the realization that most people just don't care about economics and finance. They want the path of least resistance -- the easy route. They want to feel good at all costs, no matter what the long term repercussions. They want someone to tell them that everything is going to be alright, even if it isn't going to be. I've seen it when the Assistant City Manager here in Hickory does his quarterly financial reports before the City Council. He feels a need to spin the numbers in the best possible light and present it in the face of, "What's the good news?"
What you're selling, people aren't buying
In my opinion, this community has had too much of a salesman's mentality. In the face of structural economic and cultural disorder, we can't market and sell our way into prosperity. It isn't the message that is our problem. We need to change the core of our reality.
I have tried a sales career a few times that 100% relied on commissions to make a living. I am not naive, I understand that we all have to sell our goods and services, and even ourselves to a certain extent, in order to make a living. We all know that it is easier to sell a good, established product than to sell something no one believes in.
The bottom line is obvious. People inside and outside of this community don't believe in the local product. I think it is self-evident, by action, that the leaders in the community don't believe in the product they are selling. Their message comes across as contrived.
And what is the most important ingredient? Trust. A confidence/ an expectation that the good, service, and/or you will be provide a good (great) value for what the person has invested.
Look at all of the politics that surrounded the bond referendum. What did the people in charge of this referendum tell you? 'You must do this now or things are going to get worse, but this won't work for twenty years.' That was the message that was sold. Is there confidence in that message? No... that is a message of fear. Fear may sell in the short run, but it never wins in the long run. It won't sell to people outside of the community.
A tale of two Hickory's
I was sitting up late in the night/early in the morning after the election, when I began typing this creed of affirmation.
The group that pushed for the tens of millions of dollars of stimulus package here in Hickory, in 2014, sent out a flyer that sold a version of the novel "A Tale of Two Cities." In the Hickory Inc. marketing job version of "A Tale of Two Cities", we are pointed to two models of industrial cities, one is the rubble of modern day Detroit, Michigan and the other is the desired renaissance that is defined as Greenville, South Carolina. Two stark contrasts were embellished with photography and words in a way that only a marketing campaign can achieve.
The twist of license taken by the group of "Haves", who controlled this marketing and electoral campaign, in pushing the marketing embellishment of this flyer, poetically tells the tale of just where this community is. This novel "A Tale of Two Cities" was written by Charles Dickens and it depicts life amongst socioeconomic classes in London and Paris in the mid 19th century. It isn't a story about infrastructure. It is a story about class struggle in cities that thrived for those at the socioeconomic top and was a nightmare for those at the bottom.
The story represents the difficulty of the poor (Have Nots) who have been oppressed by the aristocracy (Haves). In the Paris part of the novel, we see the peasants brutalized, which subsequently proceeds to an equal and opposite brutalization of the French nobles during the resulting French Revolution.
The opening of the story describes two Worlds existing simultaneously in virtually the same geographical location:
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.What does all of this relate to?
What we have seen from the "Powers That Be" in this community is a complete lack of empathy towards those who are struggling in the current economy. Many of these prosperous individuals seem to think that those at the bottom created their negative personal circumstances. While that may be the case with some, that isn't even close to the case for all. One can see why those who have been fortunate can afford an optimistic attitude. No one faults them for that. Where they can be faulted is in the brazen lack of compassion and respect we have seen demonstrated by some of the decision makers in the community towards the working class.
In this community, we have seen certain actions taken that reek of overbearing authority and intolerance. There is an implied expression of, "You're either with us or against us" with these forces. That negative mindset is dangerous, because it keeps people from speaking up, when their concerns might be legitimate, their ideas might be better, or their contributions might make plans better than they otherwise would be.
Certain people have told us, 'We must do this now!' If you question them, then they personalize the issues with, 'They are the anti crowd... They are anti-Hickory... They're against everything... They hate me.'
This all relates to the Old South mindset of status and patronage. This has been passed down through the origins of the old British "Divine Right" system. The King appointed Governors to the colonies.. The Governor gave land grants in the name of the King. This was a way for the King to reward allies and strengthen his political power. The King in turn would receive a percentage of duties and taxes as the economy expanded and he would dispose of the monies as he saw fit. Your average person had very little in the way of rights.
That system is the system that led to the great plantations of the South. After the Civil War, the plantation system evolved into the sharecropper system, which then gave way to the company town/mill village system as the South was Industrialized. Over time, we see how this has led to a lot of what we see in this community today; here in the throes of United States Post Industrialization. The Mill Village is the model that this community grew up in and we still see the extremes of that class structured social system to this very day. The deal is that that model is antiquated in the modern post-industrial reality.
You are the company you keep
Think of the groups you engage with. Are you surrounded by a diverse group of people or are the people in your life pretty much like yourself. Such circumstances can surely shade your perspective. When I was a kid and attending St. Stephens Elementary there were a couple Black people and there weren't any Hispanics out of hundreds of students. Over the years, as I moved through school systems, on to college, and out into the workforce that all changed. The person who grew up in the Hickory of the 1970's is definitely not the person who is living in the Hickory of the 2010's.
In modern communities, most of the younger generations don't have preconceived notions about where they are supposed to fit in the social rank. Many of the older folks don't get this and try to enforce the old social order on the community, because it is what they are comfortable with. This is one reason why the younger folks are choosing to leave the community. They aren't comfortable with authority and intolerance.
That is what is drawing younger people into the big cities... well that and a chance to progress economically. There isn't a social ladder to climb in the big cities (think Charlotte and Raleigh) that there is here in Hickory and other small Old South communities. There aren't the social cliques, which have the feel of High School, where government and civic leaders just can't fathom that people don't want to live just like them. The younger folks aren't into rolling the streets up after dark.
There is a maturity that comes with the tolerance in the big cities. Whereas, we see a lot of the opposite of the "Big Fish in a Small Pond" ... "What we have here is a failure to communicate" syndrome in the smaller communities, such as ours.
It's the same ole story, the same ole song and dance my friends...
It is unfortunate that the track record of the leaders in this community has been failure when it comes to meaningful business recruitment that creates jobs. Local businessmen are famous around here for being bottom line, no nonsense tacticians. If you work for them, they won't tolerate excuses. They expect results. Unfortunately, their political practices don't put their money where their mouths are. All we have gotten politically is excuses.
The numbers bear out our lack of business development. It has been a decade of job losses and Labor Force erosion. In the early 2000's, the Labor Force in Catawba County had grown to 82,245 people with one month having an employed number of 78,540 and that was with a population of 142,529 people. Currently it is estimated the population has grown to 154,810, but as I stated above the workforce has fallen to 71,001 people and the number of employed has fallen to 66,457 people.
So in a decade, we have seen the population grow by 7.9%, which is very anemic; especially when one looks to the fact that the population has actually regressed by over 4,000 people in the previous 4 years reported. We can see why, when the Workforce has fallen by over 10,000 people and the number of employed has followed suit.
What we have seen is the same ole story. As I opened with my State of Hickory 2009:
On July 15, 2007, I was honored to contribute a Guest Commentary that was printed in the Hickory Daily Record (HDR). The article entitled "An All-American City deserves first-class leadership" is the lead entry of this blog and I am grateful to the Hickory Daily Record for basically allowing me to give a State of Hickory address at that time.
I still believe every word that I wrote in that letter to this day. 18 months later, we are still nowhere near righting the wrongs that were discussed. The hangover from the fiber-optic, furniture, and textile busts are obviously still haunting our community. The standard of living is getting worse in our community and we are enduring the brunt of the current recession, because we have not addressed the serious, underlying issues that we have faced during this decade. Eighteen months later, how much of a difference has that All-American City designation made?...
Looming on the horizon, Corning looks to be leaving and taking with them approximately 1,000 more jobs. There's nothing in sight to replace those 1,000 jobs. Valley Hills Mall has two anchor stores, in JC Penney's and Sears, that are financially troubled on the national level. What will happen if we lose one or both of those anchors in a mall that has already been struggling in the economic realities of this community and the stiff competition that it faces from better retail destinations in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Asheville, and even Mooresville?
What do our local leaders hang their hats on when it comes to business development? Well, we've been successful at attracting some new Fast Food restaurants. And the movers and shakers in the community seem to think we are going to grow our economic prospects with jobs that barely pay over minimum wage for most of the people that work in these establishments. Or maybe is it a mindset of "Every man for himself" and taking advantage of people. That certainly doesn't help the local Economic and Social Ecosystem.
Politically, we have seen a "Me Too!" mindset from local leadership, when it comes to the redevelopment of the area that has been called the Wingfoot District and the redevelopment of the Piedmont Wagon Building. Frankly, the self-adulation has been excessively exuberant this early in those projects' lives.
While those developments have prevented some further erosion in the local economy, they are not growing the pie. They are just rearranging the deckchairs. Moving businesses from point A to point B within the community. If we don't grow the local economy in a substantial way, the restaurants and retail shops at those locations will come from other existing businesses within this community. The tenants at those locations will locate there from currently viable locations... and then what happens to those previous locations?
We have also seen a marriage of those developers to the local government apparatus, where the property owners and some of their tenants have invested in the political apparatus of the community and its current office holders, while receiving many public financial benefits . By many, this is the very definition of what is defined as Crony Capitalism. In the past, we have already seen many of these arrangements at and around Union Square. How are established businesses in other parts of the city going to feel about these subsidies? We have seen property tax deferments, other tax deferments, building grants, partnership in building out property infrastructure and so on.
In the State of Hickory 2010, I made the following observation related to buildings and the marketplace in this community:
People are going to have to realize that these are just buildings. Marketplaces are determined by people, not buildings. If these buildings aren't viable, then they just aren't viable.If we don't grow the economy in a meaningful way, then these redevelopment projects are not going to make it, because we will lose population and real incomes will not afford people the ability to eat out and shop; and these places will once again be vacant in the long run.
If something is not done Hickory will become irrelevant, if it isn't already. Look where the growth is in this area. It is in the eastern part of the county. Why is that? Because it is being pulled by gravitation towards Charlotte's economy, which while in recession is a lot more dynamic than Hickory's and that isn't necessarily because of size. Hickory is unfortunately built around keeping things cheap and cheap has a tendency to feed off of itself. We can't sell $250,000 condos, have nice gourmet cuisine, specialized bakeries, operate top-notch clubs, or do anything to attract industries of "the finer things in life" until we fix the economic structure of this community. We just don't have enough demand to create a viable market. People either cannot or will not pay for quality. Culturally, most people in this city don't understand what quality is and they are willing to bargain over it. As much as cheap begets cheap, quality begets quality.
Flirting with Collapse
What we see is a community that continues to flirt with collapse. The older people that run the show around here don't have that much to lose, so we haven't seen a sense of urgency in the past decade of decline. We haven't seen a willingness to step outside the comfort zone. Well, besides a $40 million bond referendum, which $15 million will go towards a business park and $25 million will go towards sidewalks and streetscapes. The business park at least makes an effort to directly create jobs, although we already currently have three such parks that have plenty of openings for prospective businesses. The Beautification projects, as the Mayor previously called the infrastructure upgrades, ehhh... not so much.
As I have shown before in past articles, it is the over 45 age set that has grown in the past decade. Most of the people who have migrated here are in the older demographics, while those who have left are in the age 44 and younger demographics.
Those in charge have continually taken actions that appear to have been efforts to buy time with projects that have nothing to do with job creation and growth. Look at the Business Development Committee as an example. The only thing we have seen this committee do is have some meetings and pass out some awards.
We have seen plenty of nice little, neat little, feel good gestures; but these endeavors haven't been effective in attracting industry. We were told that getting the "All-American City" designation was going to attract jobs. Hickory Inc. made efforts to win Reader's Digest awards... wanted to be Tennis Town USA... is a Play City USA. Local leaders brag about their vacations, their golf games, various sporting events... but it certainly seems like no one is even trying to get local businesses to work towards being effective in developing clusters of associated businesses based around our economic assets and strengths.
In the movie "Jerry Maguire", Cuba Gooding's character says, "Show me the money." We see Jerry having to bust his butt after losing everything. He'll do anything to appease his client, but the client just wants results. You are either getting it done or you aren't. There has to be accountability in the process. If something isn't working, then you have to change what you are doing.
There are so many little rituals attached to government and civics. Most of those little rituals don't mean a thing when it comes to "the Circle of Life". Everybody's just going through the motions with these little rituals and accountability and responsibility just get pushed to the wayside.
In Hickory, it seems there are a handful of people that think they are in charge of everything and you are supposed to go through them to get anything done. Well, how's that been working out?
Here's the bottom line... What's their plan? Who's working on the plan? And what are the results? What have we gotten? Where is the economic activity? NOTHING ELSE MATTERS... Everything else is a side show.
Accountability... Leadership has to be held accountable. You are paid to produce, If you aren't producing, then you've got to go. I'm paid to produce in my job. Why is it any different for a politician or bureaucrat? Are we paying people to be professional golfers? professional spectators? No... we are paying them to be leaders.
Here's the Good News
We all need to live by the principle of "something gained, something earned." Remain true to yourself about who you are and what you represent. You don't have to embellish your reality. Find personal solutions that work for you and that you can live with, while remaining true to yourself and moving forward.
Be responsible to/for yourself and for others. Responsible as in being answerable and accountable. That is what real leaders do. Be your own leader. Relying on yourself keeps you from being led astray. Look far off in the distance towards your desired destination. You can make adjustments along the way, but looking nowhere leads you nowhere.
Here's some really good news. You are in charge of yourself and you will be alright if you can find comfort in your current reality. Even if that is impossible to do 100% of the time, if you can accept the reality that destiny brought you to your current circumstances, then you won't be paralyzed in moving forward.
It is frustrating that certain people are intolerant of the messages I convey to the public, especially when our forefathers did everything within their power to give us the right to freely express ourselves. That is what Liberty is. It is even worse when many people just don't seem to care and so easily give up their rights and even might try to suppress yours.
Long ago I came to the realization that people are going to have different perspectives and some people aren't going to like what you say no matter how you say it. In getting the message out, as an advocate journalist, about where this community stands economically and socially, my goal has been consistency in ideology, endurance in the mission, and relating that the perceptions of the community are it's reality. All we have been through, are going through, and will go through have, has, and will have lasting social consequences as we move forward. Leadership, responsibility, and accountability needs to be taken seriously.
Thank You and may God Bless this community and help us to help ourselves.
The State of Hickory 2013
The State of Hickory 2012
The State of Hickory 2011
The State of Hickory 2010
The State of Hickory 2009
Unemployment Spreadsheet through September 2014