The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

January 28, 2013

Leaders discuss ways to stay CONNECTed

By Justin Jones, Staff Writer

Monday, January 28, 2013 — A group of about 15 members that sit on either a board from the Stanly County Chamber of Commerce or Albemarle Downtown Development Corporation (ADDC) gathered Wednesday morning to discuss ideas and challenges for the region’s future.

The meeting was led by two representatives of the Lee Institute, Libby Cable and Jeanne Kutrow. Cable and Kutrow are consultants for the Centralina Council of Governments and work specifically in gathering community input in their CONNECT Our Future program.

The CONNECT region includes 14 counties from North Carolina and South Carolina, with Charlotte and Mecklenburg County being the center of the region. The Catawba Regional Council of Government is collecting similar data for the four South Carolina counties that are included in the region.

From the start, the group was introduced to several challenges facing the region. Challenges include growing jobs and the economy, only three major sources of water and the 24th worst traffic congestion in the nation. All of those things can become even greater challenges if projections follow through and the region has an additional two million people in the area by 2050.

Those challenges were on paper, but the meeting Wednesday morning was to hear from people.

“The intention is that the product will live many years afterward. The purpose is in a collaborative, inclusive and interactive way to put together a regional growth framework that will help to put in motion a set of tools and guidelines for how the people of this region want the region to grow,” Cable said.

“The premise is you go to get the people of the region to participate and express what is really important to them that they want to stay the same and where they want things to change.”

The early morning trip to Stanly County wasn’t the first for Cable and Kutrow, as both have been a part of the two open-house format CONNECT gatherings, which were in Albemarle and Locust Dec. 3 and Dec. 6, respectively.

They had a similar small group at the Stanly County Senior Center Nov. 29.

Each person was asked to answer a form of interactive questions based on their community or region.

“What best illustrates the best qualities of your community or region?” and “What makes this place especially important to you?” were some of the first questions asked.

Kutrow guided the group on answering each question and in the discussion that followed.

ADDC and Chamber of Commerce members went around the room, sharing answers for what makes Stanly County and the region as a whole the reason they choose to call the area home.

Popular answers were the sense of safety, faith and family-based atmosphere and the landscape beauty spanning from Morrow Mountain State Park to the farmland of Millingport.

But the small group not only centered around the good, it also pin-pointed the challenges Stanly County faces.

Stanly County Chamber of Commerce President Tom Ramseur said the absence of an interstate will likely always plague the area, but that it also misses out on the larger media outlets.

“They’ll cover ALCOA, but that’s really the only reason they’re coming here,” he said.

“We’re in the region, we know that economic development wise and everything else, but we have to gain our place in the region. They’re not going to come to us.”

Other answers that spread around the room were on transportation improvements and development for a countywide sewer system.

Joseph Burleson, a Chamber of Commerce board member, said he found one challenge to be “obvious.”

“Keeping young people here after high school or returning here after college,” he said.

“Because of the lack of professional jobs and opportunities in general. I think that goes along with what most people have put down.”

Whether it was reflecting on the best features of the area or brainstorming on the challenges ahead, the members of the two boards clearly want to be included in the discussion and have a greater say in the region. But the secret for the growth of the county may be finding a mix.

“For years, I’ve heard about the challenges ... I also think so many of the things we see as challenges we might also look at them as opportunities,” ADDC Executive Director Kathy Almond said.

“All of the natural spaces, rolling hills and a lot of those things we might not have if we had some of those challenges like interstates and some highways. I think we do need to look at those challenges but consider them opportunities to protect what we got and protect that community, home and family sense that we have.”