Scotland County has an image problem.
That was the consensus of the county’s “economic stakeholders” after their Thursday meeting, the fifth such gathering since June. The group left the 8 a.m. meeting at the F. Diane Honeycutt Center in Laurinburg resolved to be more proactive in the branding and presentation of the community.
“If we don’t create the message, someone else will do it for us,” said County Commissioner Carol McCall.
The discussion of taking charge of how Scotland County is perceived by the rest of the state and the country started when attorney Nick Sojka asked some difficult questions of the 20-member stakeholders assembly that included representatives of local government and businesses.
“(Are) we just left off the radar? Do people in Raleigh even know who we are?” Sojka asked the group.
Sojka recalled a recent UNC TV program presenting the Thomas Walton Manor as a rare highlight in “the county with the highest unemployment in the state.”
As long as Scotland County is best known for that fact, progress will be difficult, Sojka said.
The discourse then turned to a news story recently printed by the Duke Chronicle characterizing downtown Laurinburg as a regressive economic wasteland with few prospects.
“It was one of the most negative stories I’ve ever read about Laurinburg,” said Bob Davis, the immediate past chair of the board of commissioners.
In order for the county to raise its profile in a positive way there must be a concerted effort on the part of the entire community, according to Tourism Development Authority director Cory Hughes.
“We will need a single message. One umbrella … that defines who we are as a community,” said Hughes, whose work includes promoting Laurinburg to those outside the county. “
If the county is on message, stories like the one run by the Chronicle are less likely to be written in the first place, according to Hughes.
Richmond Community College President Dale McInnis said that the county will also have to create some good news of its own.
“You don’t have anything to sell until there are some victories,” McInnis said, giving the example of the Honeycutt Center where the meeting was being held.
Next Thursday at 7 p.m. UNC TV will shine the spotlight on RCC. McInnis reported that during the profile the college’s Scotland County facility will be presented. Stories like that one must become the rule rather than the exception, McInnis said.
“Still, we have got to address the elephant in the room that is having the highest unemployment in the state,” said former UNC-Pembroke interim chancellor Charles Jenkins, bringing the discussion back to jobs.
Serving as chairman of the group, which was led in its discussion by Laurinburg Mayor Tommy Parker, Jenkins said the county may benefit from studying the science of its unemployment problem.
“If you look at every other indicator outside of unemployment, we are not (as bad),” Jenkins said, encouraging the group to educate itself by contacting representatives of the UNC School of Government about the demographics of the county’s unemployed population.
“It is systemic, our unemployment problem,” said McCall. “If you look, historically we have always been five points worse than the rest of the state.”
According to Laurinburg/Scotland County Area Chamber of Commerce President Tonia Stephenson, area businesses have reported having numerous employment opportunities.
“They just can’t find qualified people or people willing to roll up their sleeves and work.”
Upon the suggestion of newly sworn in county commissioner Whit Gibson and former commissioner Joyce McDow, the assembly agreed to share contact information and to create a list of three positive aspects of the county and three areas of concern between now and its next summit.
Planning to meet again Jan. 9 of 2013, the group will use the feedback to inform its next step, which Parker said could include the creation of a comprehensive document outlining the roles of local institutions and businesses in economic development as well as their goals for the future.
“The first four meetings were kind of just putting the blocks up of the foundation and now we are ready for the building to go up.”
Once that next step is taken, Parker believes that the stakeholders will be in a better position to leverage their strengths, present the community to the outside world and to pool resources.