A recent survey of Pennsylvania’s counties was not good news for our region. The survey ranked the counties in order of poverty. Four of the top 10 counties were in our area. Jefferson County came in at 10.
I recently returned from a trip to western North Carolina. It is a trip I have made before. I made my first trip to the area more than 10 years ago. There have been many changes over the past decade.
On my first trip to the Statesville-Mooresville area it was not unlike a trip to rural Pennsylvania except the weather was usually a whole lot warmer. Mooresville was not untypical of towns across the nation. An interstate highway ran close by connecting the older main street area with a strip of new development. If you drove into the old town you ran through the built-up area within a few stop lights. Going the other way you saw a few strip malls and there you were back in the country again.
That has changed. In the span of a few years the development has exploded. One community a short way up Route 150 has grown by 27% from 2000 to 2010. Mooresville has seen growth very similar. There are now three exits for what was once small town. The entire area is growing by leaps and bounds.
It is just not commercial development. My sister-in-law took us to her church. It is an independent called “The Cove.” I thought I was walking into a rock concert. There was a band on the stage and big screens on either side of the stage but what impressed me was that the auditorium held 1,990 people and it was packed. And this was the second service of the day! As I scanned the audience I saw all races and ethnicities represented but what struck me the most was the number of young people. These were not sullen kids who were forced to go to church but active participants. It was so refreshing to see so many young people in the seats.
As I drove north I could not help contrast that section of North Carolina with Western Pennsylvania. The vitality I saw in North Carolina was woefully absent here. I could not help but wonder why.
Could it be because of natural resources? In Pennsylvania we have the natural resources they lack. We have coal and natural gas. They counter that with nuclear and hydroelectric power. Clearly that is not the reason.
Was it because North Carolina has such a better climate? Like most states the climate is diverse. They have the coastal plain that bumps against the mountains in the west. Pennsylvania also has a diverse climate although no where is it as hospitable as coastal Carolina.
Granted, Mooresville is the unofficial home of NASCAR and that does pump a lot of dollars into the local economy. It is also near a huge recreational lake that was created when Duke Power erected the hydroelectric plant. NASCAR has no historic roots to Mooresville but at some time an ambitious civic leader and a NASCAR official got together and made magic happen.
That is not the only industry in that area by a long shot. Gone are the old tobacco farms, replaced now by wineries with vines replacing the tobacco plant. In our area old farms are replaced by weeds.
In my youth I was always told that we had a superior work ethic in the north. That can be said no longer. Only the extreme heat slows anyone down in North Carolina.
So what is the difference? I believe it is leadership at every level of government. You cannot have a new development with 1,100 homes without some willing partners. No one was throwing up barriers. Instead they worked to remove them.
When the state government came up short in the funding for a circumference highway around Charlotte, the Governor turned to the private sector and partnered with several construction companies to get it done. There was no crippling gas tax to improve highways and bridges.
Unlike Pennsylvania where the current Governor is hoping to tax the growing Marcellus gas industry to fund education, North Carolina approached educational funding by setting salaries based on a state minimum and then allowed the counties to add incentive pay. It worked. We have always held our educational facilities to a high standard in Pennsylvania but are those institutions superior to Duke or North Carolina? (Duke and the University of Pennsylvania were tied for eighth place according to U.S. News and World Report; Carnegie Mellon 25 and Wake Forest 27).
There is one other major difference: North Carolina is a right-to-work state.
In 1947, the North Carolina legislature passed an act and the preamble read: “The right to live includes the right to work. The exercise of the right to work must be protected and maintained free from undue restraints and coercion. It is hereby declared to be the public policy of North Carolina that the right of persons to work shall not be denied or abridged on account of membership or nonmembership in any labor union or labor organization or association.”
That was amended in 1959 to say: “Contracts between units of government and labor unions, trade unions or labor organizations concerning public employees declared to be illegal.”
When labor unions can buy a governor or block the action of the legislature to divest itself of an ancient liquor store system, then change will be difficult, if not impossible, to realize.
Barring change we will see a continued slide into insignificance.