Decker: Health, education, culture keys to prosperity

Decker: State government aiming to be ‘more nimble’

By Kevin Spradlin

* Video – Emily Tucker

HAMLET — Sharon Decker, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Commerce, came to the podium inside Cole Auditorium on the campus of Richmond Community College to a friendly applause.

Decker spoke before an audience of between 250 and 275 business leaders and local appointed and elected officials in the 17th annual Richmond County Chamber of Commerce Business and Industry Appreciation.

Kevin Spradlin |

Kevin Spradlin |

The evening began with an informal social half hour in the lobby of Cole Auditorium that focused on networking and making new connections. That was followed by a dinner and words of welcome by Evans Sheppard, chamber chairman, along with Rockingham Mayor Steve Morris and Hamlet Mayor Bill Bayless.

Clark Robertson, AVP-Regional Development for CSX Transportation, spoke of his appreciation of a community that shows appreciation for its business community.

“You are the ones that make things happen,” Robertson said. “It’s nice to be in a place that appreciates jobs.”

Decker, meanwhile, talked fluently and quickly about the future of North Carolina’s prosperity. That future, she said, includes education, manufacturing and farming and agriculture. The Albemarle native raised in the Flint Groves community of Gastonia, Decker spoke of what she called the five tenets of economic health: health; education; economic development; culture and tourism; and quality of life and the environment.

It’s a talk she’s given before, Decker said, but “I’m gonna speak it until we finally get it.”

Health, she said, is No. 1.

Sharon Decker

Sharon Decker

“This is true in this county … in the Sandhills region … in the state of North Carolina,” Decker said.

The state is in the top 10 percent in heart disease, obesity, adult smokers and several other risk factors.

“North Carolina’s not looking too good,” Decker said.

Realizing she stood behind a podium with RCC’s logo, she called two-year colleges “one of the best assets that North Carolina has.”

Decker noted that at nearly one-third, literacy rates are far too low.

“We’ve got to focus on education,” Decker said. “It’s a fundamental of our success.”

It’s a big world out there, she noted, but growing up “my world was about a mile and a half wide.” It’s a different world today, Decker said.

She also noted the need to attract young people to the industries of farming and agriculture.

“North Carolina can help feed the world,” she said.

As for economic development, “at the end of the day … it’s local.”

It can begin with access to high-speed Internet.

And finally, Decker said, culture.

“Tourism matters,” she said. “It’s a $20 billion a year (industry). When you see folks who are in the hospitality industry, museums, attractions, all of it matters. It’s a part of this economy.”

Whenever she gets the opportunity to ask why someone moved to North Carolina, the top answer, she said, is “we liked it.”

“Understand the assets we have,” she said, “and use what we’ve got. It’s our intent to work with you to develop those assets.”

Decker left the podium to a standing ovation after her 20-minute speech. Afterwards, she sat down with The Pee Dee Post to talk about the balance of two of the tenets — education vs. culture. The Board of Richmond County Commissioners in July approved a resolution to put a quarter-cent sales tax to referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot. If the initiative passes, the money could go to help fund the construction of a new sports complex in Rockingham. (See previous coverage: ^ Sept. 25 ^ Sept. 19 ^ Sept. 16)

Decker didn’t address Richmond County’s proposal specifically. Instead, she talked about “the challenge every community faces: With limited resources, how do you set priorities?”

Decker emphasized that the five tenets she spoke of during her presentation weren’t in any particular order. What she wanted to impress upon her audience, she said, is that “each is needed for a healthy community.”

“What comes first? Where do you invest first?” Decker said those questions are being asked at the state level as well.

Decker pointed out that “the fastest-growing area of tourism in the country is sports-related.” That includes, she said, “youth sports, family sports, sports vacations. There are a lot of different aspects to that.”

Second, she said, is around eco-tourism, or natural tourism. That includes hiking and paddle sports.

Decker said it’s important to elect local leaders that are trustworthy and then trust them to make the right decisions.

But she didn’t fail to address the critical nature the role of Richmond Community College plays in moving Richmond County forward.

“We knew we need more students trained in vocational occupations and in trades where there are jobs,” Decker said. “We do have a challenge in filling the jobs that we have statewide (in) welding, electricians, carpenters and the like. The skilled trades.”

The event was sponsored by Richmond County government, Richmond Community College, Piedmont Natural Gas, the city of Rockingham, Duke Energy, Pee Dee Electric, Mabry’s Drug and Home Care, Classic Apparel, Covington Eye Clinic, Superior Cranes, the city of Hamlet, J.J. Long Grading Co. Inc., BB&T Bank, Maness Tire Pros, Perdue, Pepsi, R.A. Jeffreys and CSX Transportation.

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