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Mount Airy’s economic summit draws SRO crowd

January 9th, 2008 · No Comments

“We can change,” the emerging theme for this year’s presidential election, could be the slogan for Mount Airy, judging by comments Tuesday at an economic-development summit meeting.

Convened by newly elected city commissioners Dean Brown and Deborah Cochran, the session at the Olympia Family Restaurant attracted a standing-room-only crowd of about 100. Many were business people. City Manager Don Brookshire led a large contingent of city department heads. Both newspapers and the local radio stations covered the meeting. Speakers included people directly involved in economic-development, such as Surry County Economic Development Partnership’s Board Chairman Ted Ashby and President Robin Rhyne, but many others talked about their own entrepreneurial efforts and how those successes might be encouraged.

Many floated specific proposals to stimulate economic development and create jobs.

One of the constraints on growth is Surry County’s workforce, I pointed out. Only three blocks north of the Olympia, AES (formerly Applied Electronic Services), SouthData and Ottenweller all want to expand their companies, but have had trouble finding suitable workers. AES needs electronics technicians and machinists, Ottenweller needs welders and metal fabricators and SouthData needs workers for packing, distribution, printing and sales. They’re not alone in the hunt for more workers; many companies in Surry County also need people who have certain job skills that don’t necessarily require an advanced education. I said a large part of the economic-development focus must be on improving workers’ skills and education.

Robin Rhyne said Surry Community College is aware of some of those needs. It has prepared facilities to train welders, for example. The college’s problem has been attracting students interested in such careers.

Subsequent discussion led to three of the many concrete proposals for changes and improvements in Surry County’s economic-development efforts:

  • A Surry-specific “job bank” to connect companies and employees.
  • More vocational training in the college and high schools and more career-oriented extracurricular activities such as DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America), SkillsUSA-VICA (Vocational-Industrial Clubs of America), HERO (Home Economics-Related Occupations) and Junior Achievement.
  • A city-sponsored task force, primarily composed of business leaders, to promote and encourage job-development in Mount Airy and the surrounding area.

Rhyne and Ashby said SCEDP is working on a number of economic-development efforts that haven’t drawn much publicity. For example, the partnership recently sent out 2,500 marketing packages to targeted industries (plastics and packaging, logistics and distribution, value-added food processors and others) in New England. The partnership followed up with direct calls to those industries. Those efforts require both manpower and money; for this initiative alone the partnership needed to hire a special consultant.

More than one speaker said all economic-development efforts in Mount Airy will require a greater investment of money and manpower than has been committed to date. Several said the partnership should be the focal point for economic-development efforts. (In a related development this week, SCEDP revealed it will have to relocate to a new office, because Surry Community College needs SCEDP’s existing site for development of its viticulture center. See news reports here and here.)

There was a lot of optimism and a positive, proactive spirit at the meeting, which Brookshire said afterwards are the kinds of attitudes that need encouragement. Citing John M. Schultz’s “Boomtown USA: The 7-1/2 Keys to Big Success in Small Towns,” Brookshire pointed out the No. 1 key is, “Adopt a can-do’ attitude.”

Tom Joyce covered the meeting for The Mount Airy News. His article, “Citizens serve up economic ideas,” quotes a number of people who spoke Tuesday — at least 20, by his count.

Brook Corwin reported by story for the Surry Messenger. See “City economic summit draws about 100.”

Related to that news coverage, several people talking after the meeting discussed ways to expand efforts (such as that will publicize business activity and economic-development opportunities in Surry County. As one possibility, local media and the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce might share their articles and information about new and expanding businesses, products and services and put more of those stories online.

So what happens next?

“After the meeting, commissioners Brown and Cochran said their appetites for progress were satisfied by the turnout and the various proposals offered,” Joyce reported. “Brown said a core group will be developed from the gathering to explore some of the ideas further. “

Tags: Economic development

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