YADKINVILLE — North Carolina’s Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker addressed business leaders in Yadkin County on Friday regarding economic development in rural communities.
N.C. House Rep. Mark Hollo was also in attendance. Hollo announced that he would not be running for re-election, but said he “wanted to continue to work as hard as [he] could to help Yadkin County” for the remainder of his term.
Decker was appointed to her position by Governor Pat McCrory in January of 2013. She is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and has more than 30 years of experience in business and commerce. Decker worked for Duke Power for 17 years and was the company’s youngest and first female vice president.
For the past 13 years, Decker has resided in Rutherford County and she said that her time spent in rural North Carolina opened her eyes to the problems facing such communities.
Upon her appointment to serve as Secretary of Commerce, she said, “I told the governor that two other governors had asked me to take jobs in their administration in the past and I always turned them down, but that was before I lived in rural North Carolina. I had a sense it was time to either put up or shut up and time to get engaged because rural North Carolina was hurting.”
Decker talked about the urbanization of the nation, but said that rural counties could be healthy again as well. She laid out five tenets that she said were the keys to economic success for Yadkin and other rural areas in the state. Those tenets related to access to health care, education and training both for young people and adults, economic development through the fostering of small businesses, tourism, environment and quality of life.
The history of the state is something Decker said she revisited as she worked to come up with these five tenets.
“Coming out of the [Great] Depression, North Carolina took very bold leadership to redevelop at a community level,” Decker said. “It was that that allowed our economy to stay ahead of the pace of the country. I think we are in another one of those places in history where we have to work very aggressively to take the lead and it will happen first at a community level.”
Decker also spoke of the importance of tax reform in the state.
“The state has a very important role to play in policy,” she said. “All the tax reform that Rep. Hollo and others worked so hard to pass in this last session is about creating a more competitive climate for businesses and individuals to operate in North Carolina and we’re going to keep those rates moving down. We think it’s very important. We’ve lost our competitive position. We have the highest personal income tax rate in the southeast and that’s not OK. We have made some progress in that regard, but we have more work to do.”
Decker also praised local officials for the often “thankless” duties they perform.
“The unsung heroes in government life are at a community level,” she said. “Those serving in elected and appointed positions at the city and county level are the ones who get the work done.”
Following her presentation at Friday’s meeting, community leaders were able to ask questions and discuss concerns about the economic growth of the county.
Kevin Austin, chairman of the Yadkin County Board of Commissioners, shared his thoughts on the role of the community colleges in rural areas and the problem of young people leaving the county because “they did not see a future here.” Various state programs that offer job training and workforce development, Austin said, should be centralized through the community college system.
“There is a future here,” he said. “I believe the pathway to that future is through the community college and job retraining and new technology. If the community college was a central hub to allow people to enter the work force or to be retrained or redirected, it would be beneficial to our community and others.”
The North Carolina Department of Transportation was another prominent topic of discussion at the meeting. Yadkin County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bobby Todd spoke to the secretary regarding ongoing complaints relating to traffic for employees of Phillips-Van Heusen, located in Jonesville. The company’s entrance is adjacent to Highway 67 and, according to Todd, some days it takes upwards of 45 minutes for employees to exit the parking lot.
Todd said when the company first opened its doors here in Yadkin County 20 years ago, the building was 330,000 square feet and had 130 employees. Nathan Lewis, human resources director for Phillips-Van Heusen, said the company now has 800,000 square feet of operating space and 1,000 employees.
“It’s a full three-shift operation,” Todd explained. “Phillips-Van Heusen has done all they can do to resolve the issues, but we aren’t getting anywhere. We’ve asked [DOT] for a traffic signal for years and they’ve told us for years that it didn’t warrant it.”
According to Todd, DOT agreed two years ago to build a traffic circle to help ease the congestion around the entrance to Phillips-Van Heusen but that has yet to happen.
Austin also shared concerns on behalf of the county in regards to “lack of open ears to local needs” from the Department of Transportation. “The message being sent out by DOT is that they’re not willing to work for business and economic growth,”Austin said.
A resolution adopted by the county commissioners on Feb. 17 to request a formal meeting with both the Secretary of Transportation and the Secretary of Commerce to discuss issues with the DOT was presented to Decker following the gathering on Friday.
Attendees at the meeting seemed pleased with Decker’s willingness to listen to their concerns and take action to help the county progress.
“I feel very good about what was said and her response to concerns,” said Lewis. “It’s going to get the ball rolling on some of these projects that Yadkin County needs help on.”
Austin also said he felt positive about Decker’s capabilities to help, particularly rural counties in the state grow.
“The secretary understands not only rural counties in general, but understands that Yadkin County has special circumstances and special needs and the fact that she sees that about Yadkin means she can see it about all 100 counties in the state and I think that’s a good base of knowledge that will help her be effective in her job for the economic development of North Carolina,” he said.
Austin also said he felt that concerns shared regarding DOT were heard by the secretary and that she would take that message back to Raleigh and it would bring “a good result” for the county.
The resolution also was sent to the office of General Anthony Tata, secretary of transportation for North Carolina, following Friday’s meeting. On Tuesday, a representative from the secretary’s office contacted Yadkin County officials to work on scheduling the requested meeting to address concerns regarding the state’s department of transporation.
Kitsey E. Burns may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter @RippleReporterK.