If the city of Laurinburg could be compared to a ship on a voyage, I would say that while it is not yet sinking, we find ourselves in very choppy waters with the wind in our faces, a bewildered crew and no land in sight. It seems that every week in the news there is confirmation of what we all know is the reality on the streets. We read about the high unemployment in the area, the poor health of the citizens, the extreme poverty of the children. We know Laurinburg is not growing, in fact for the past two years, the population has actually decreased from just over 16,000 to just under. That is never a good thing, one just has to look to Gibson, Rowland or Maxton and wonder if Laurinburg is heading down that road.
We all should know the causes of our city’s situation, they have been plain for the eyes to see for the past 20 years. Laurinburg has still not truly accepted the reality that the world has changed and therefore it has made few plans for succeeding in the 21st Century. In my view, there continues to be a damning combination of hoping the ways of old will lead to jobs and growth, a disproportionate amount of time and money spent on the way things are instead of on the way things could be, and a lack of interest in general in seeking to understand and thereby take hold of our future.
And what a future that could be. With the population growth in our region and state that is sure to come in the years ahead, we must embrace a new model of economic development. We have seen and will continue to see that investing our hopes in the old model of economic development, that is, getting industries to come here, will continue to be a misuse of valuable time and effort. Yes, we will land the occasional green industry and we must try to get our share. But few jobs come with them (our new solar plant will create 1, that’s right, 1 job). Yes, we must develop our airport to try to lure military subcontractors there, but a large scale employer is very unlikely. Yes, we must go after traditional industry but the experts say that if we land one 200-employee plant every 5 years we would be getting more than our share (we haven’t landed one of those in over 20 years, the last industry that came, Nature’s Earth to the Eaton Plant, has less than 10 people working there).
The State of the City is this. We are extremely well-positioned to grow but only if we would commit to a new vision of economic development. Important growth in the foreseeable future is going to come by Laurinburg focusing its efforts on expanding our growth as a retirement community, becoming a bedroom community and retail and entertainment hub for the surrounding 100,000 people, developing Highway 74 business, growing our higher education establishments and continuing to grow our health care facilities. We have made many strides, particularly in health care growth and community college growth, but there is so much more we can do and must do to maximize growth in all of these areas. To those who doubt an economy based on these foundations, I’d love to hear an alternative vision for returning Laurinburg to a growing community. Look around, whether it be Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Wilmington or wherever, those communities in Southeastern North Carolina that are committing to this new vision of growth are growing. We cannot keep doing the same things and expect different results. Like Obama mentioned during his speech on the State of the Union, we here in Laurinburg are at our own ‘Sputnik’ moment. That is, we are at a critical time, where we either commit to changing the way we do things in order to grow or we continue down this path of poverty and shrinkage that we have been following for far too long. There is nothing holding us back but ourselves. Poor towns are what poor towns do and prosperous towns are what prosperous towns do.
This Thursday, February 3rd, at 7 pm at the AB Gibson Center, each and every Laurinburg citizen ( and anyone else who wants to) is invited and encouraged to come to the annual City of Laurinburg Citizen Input Session. Come share your vision of the city, both present and future. Come tell us what the City is doing right or wrong or just come to listen. I believe I speak for City Council and city Staff when I say that your input is highly valued. It is your city and your night. Hope to see you there.