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Community Profile

Right: Salisbury once housed the huge 
Southern Railway steam engine repair plant,
a strong history captured in working displays 
at the Transportation Museum in Spencer.

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Growing from
Strong Roots

Rowan County, accustomed to a strong economy, 
senses a new business boom is about to be heard

By Susan Shinn

When he was a kid growing up in Granite Quarry, Paul Fisher could sense the rain coming — says he could smell it. Today, Fisher is president and CEO of F&M Bank, Rowan County’s largest bank. And he and other leaders here say they sense good things ahead for the county.

It that belief comes true, it will only add to the long list of good things that have happened in Rowan, which straddles Interstate 85 about half way between Charlotte and the Triad. The county particularly has enjoyed a long run of success in the business world. It’s the home of the Food Lion grocery store chain and the region that gave birth to two of North Carolina’s most recognizable products — Stanback headache powders and Cheerwine soda.

Other Rowan County companies have extended their reach globally. Power Curbers, which manufactures specialized machines used to build sidewalks, curbs and gutters, has customers in 80 countries. The company’s machines were used in construction of the Chunnel tunnel linking England and France.

The belief that more good business news will arrive soon is felt the strongest in Salisbury, the county seat, because of events set in motion two decades ago, says Randy Hemann, executive director of Downtown Salisbury Inc. Back then Salisbury was among the first cities to join the Main Street Program, a national program aimed at revitalizing downtown areas through the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “We are still reaping the benefits of the groundwork that was laid 10 to 15 years ago,” he says.

The city also has just completed a two-year, $120,000 master plan encompassing seven areas of strategy for growth downtown, making it a place for business; for shopping and dining; for living; for gathering as a community; for creating and learning; for experiencing history; and for lasting impressions.

“It brings all the pieces of the puzzle together,” Hemann says. “When you do a plan like this and people see the vision, it tends to fall in place. People will help you make it a reality.”

The downtown area employs more than 4,600 people and enjoys a 95 percent first-floor occupancy rate, according to Hemann. There are 75 shops, 15 restaurants and more than 140 antique dealers. And there are more than 100 apartment units scattered in the downtown area, including 20 luxury units in The Plaza, the seven-story building that stands guard on the Square. “When you pull everything together, there is a lot to offer here in Rowan County, a lot of things that are family friendly,” he says.

Fisher lends a more historical perspective. “From the end of the second World War until 1990, Salisbury wasn’t going anywhere,” he says. Then came the refurbishment of The Plaza, the renovation of the Salisbury Post newspaper building, the Salisbury Station and the Meroney Theatre, and the revamping of the courthouse and other city buildings — all of which took place downtown. But there was a lapse and a lot of people got restless, including Fisher. “What happened during the last 10 years — and what will happen the next five years — will have surpassed all the growth before that,” he says.

Some exciting projects are taking place in the North Main Street area. One of the largest projects is the development of Easy Street, a joint venture between F&M bank and the city. Two buildings will become the new headquarters for F&M. The Waterworks Art Visual Center will relocate to this area. There are also business and commercial condos available. But it’s more than that. “The whole idea of that area is to create a sense of place,” Fisher says. “There is a beautiful Charleston garden. It will be a beautiful place.”

Right: Easy Street, a joint project between F&M Bank and the city of Salisbury, 
will be the site of an array of shops and a pedestrian friendly walking path

Everyone Pulls Together
The Rowan County Chamber of Commerce boasts a membership of 900 businesses. In its early years, the chamber was named for the city of Salisbury, then adopted the Salisbury/Rowan combination, and today is known by its current moniker. “Our name is representative of the whole county,” notes president Bob Wright. “What we do benefits the whole county.”

In 2001, the chamber, the Rowan County Economic Development Commission and the Rowan County Convention and Visitors Bureau moved into the Gateway Building on Innes Street. The location serves to tie together the entire downtown area, and creates a gateway into the city from Interstate 85. “It’s the front door of the community,” Wright says. “We’ve got this one-stop shop for everybody who comes into town.”

The chamber’s Business Resource Center fields calls daily from people interested in starting their own business. “We’re helping grow businesses in Rowan County right here in the chamber,” Wright says. There’s more to come. He hails the reconfiguration of the I-85 exit at Salisbury as “the single biggest economic development we’ve ever had in this county.”

Randy Harrell senses that economic development is on the upswing. “We’re excited about the things that are happening with visitations and inquiries,” says Harrell, the EDC’s executive director. Things have changed, he says, in the way he works with prospective companies. Today, there are consultants who represent these companies — he may not know even who the companies are and what they do. “It’s a lot less personal and it presents a challenge,” he says.  Although he says that the current number of projects in progress “aren’t quite where we want them, we’re working our fair share.”

“We’ve got a lot to offer that some larger communities can’t offer,” Harrell says. “This is a great place to live and that part can only get better.” Harrell lauds elected officials for controlled growth and bringing “good, clean industries” to the area. “Nothing but good can come from that,” he says.

Likewise, nothing but good can come from the Summit Corporate Center, which opened about five years ago. The center, located on Julian Road off I-85, has numerous lots and buildings available immediately for businesses looking to relocate.

EDC directors used to be known as “buffalo hunters,” Harrell notes, going after big companies who would employ large numbers of people. Now, he says, “we’re tickled to death to land a company that employs 10 to 15 people, with a growth potential of 50 to 100 employees. We’re open to anything that will pay good wages to our citizens and not affect the environment. Every job counts.”

Like others, Harrell benefits greatly from the Gateway Building. The EDC’s board room serves as his “war room” for potential prospects. It features state-of-the-art equipment — DVD, VCR, Dolby stereo and an overhead projector.

A Boom in Tourism
One of Rowan County’s better-kept secrets is its appeal to tourists, according to Judy Newman, the executive director of the CVB. “In one day, we had three motorcoaches come in from the Cushman convention,” she says. “Then we had a senior group that came in on the train. They walked to the Wrenn House, shopped downtown and toured the Hall House. They took a city bus to the transportation museum, then took the last bus back to Salisbury and then took the train to Raleigh.”

The N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer (pictured, left) and the Lazy 5 Ranch near Salisbury each draw 100,000 visitors a year. And Dan Nicholas Park draws 800,000 visitors annually, according to Jim Foltz, the county’s executive director of parks and recreation. Many groups, Newman says, combine visits to the ranch and to Dan Nicholas.

The historic district also draws its share of visitors. OctoberTour is hosted each fall by the Historic Salisbury Foundation. Several thousand people attend the two-day event, slated this year for Oct. 12-13. A self-guided, audio walking tour covers such sites as the Hall House, the Utzmann-Chambers House, the Bell Tower, the mural and the Wrenn House, a former school that’s now a restaurant. “People love it,” Newman says of the tour. “It’s about 1 1/3 miles and people can spend one to four hours on the tour and go at their own pace. You can cut that machine off and go shopping downtown.”

Rowan County celebrates a number of festivals each year, all of which typically pull visitors from about a 50-mile radius. Some of the most popular one-day events are Farmer’s Day in China Grove, Heritage Day in Landis, the Fourth of July celebration in Faith and Founders Day in Gold Hill.

An exciting event set for next year is the 250th anniversary of Rowan County and Salisbury. Appropriately dubbed “250 Fest,” the celebration will include special events throughout the year. Kay Brown Hirst, executive director of the Rowan Museum, is chairman of the event’s steering committee, a deserving appointment given that the museum was founded as a direct result of the county’s bicentennial celebration in 1953.

The 250th anniversary festivities kick off Dec. 31 with a celebration at the Salisbury Bell Tower. More than 300 churches throughout the county will ring their bells 250 times. The Cheerwine “Parade of the Century” will take place April 11, with participation from 250 units, including 25 bands and the reigning Miss America. President Dwight Eisenhower spoke at the 200th anniversary of Rowan County, and President George W. Bush has been invited to speak April 12 at this celebration. A countywide school production also will take place in April, along with other events through the year. “Our goals for the celebration are to impact education, tourism and hopefully impact the economy,” Hirst says.

Fertile Soil for Banking
Three banks got their start in Rowan County and continue to operate here today. Farmers & Merchants Bank started in Granite Quarry in 1909, and the father of current bank president and CEO Paul Fisher began working for the bank in 1914 and continued until his death 50 years later. “We have been a local bank all this time,” Fisher says. “We have eight locations in Rowan County.”

The bank boasts a 23.5 percent market share. With 150 employees and $350 million in assets, it is the largest retail bank in the county and the county’s largest real estate lender, according to Fisher. “We’re in the banking business, we’re in the people business, we’re in the community building business,” Fisher says. “If you don’t improve the community you live in, you’re not going to have any business.”

Rowan Bank was founded in China Grove as the Rowan County Building and Loan Association in 1905. Over the years, the bank was known as Rowan Federal Savings and Loan and Rowan Savings Bank. It became a stock institution in 1993, according to Bruce Jones, president and CEO. “That’s when the growth of our bank really occurred,” he says.

Rowan Bank is now poised for more growth. It recently merged with First National Bank of Asheboro. Stockholders could choose among receiving stock, cash or a combination for the transaction. “It was structured to be a 45 percent stock/55 percent cash transaction,” Jones explains. “It’s really one of the better deals based on the value of the transaction.”

The new bank will have $700 million in assets. Rowan Bank will continue to operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of the parent company. “Our name will not change,” says Jones, who became an officer of the holding company. “It gives us the ability to get products and services to the market more quickly than we could ourselves.”

Such services include online banking, trust services and commercial lending. Check processing has now become an in-house, back office function. “We think it’s a win-win for our stock holders and customers,” Jones says. “We’re still going to be Rowan Bank.”

Rowan Bank has become part of a network of 20 branches in Rowan, Randolph and surrounding counties. Jones says that Rowan Bank will continue working at the key to its success — providing a high level of service and knowing its customers.

The same blueprint has helped make a success of the Bank of the Carolinas, which was founded  in 1913 as Home Building & Loan Association. The bank was also known as Landis Savings Bank and became Bank of the Carolinas when it went public in 1998.

Bank of the Carolinas was acquired by Bank of Davie on the last day of 2001. With $170 million in assets, the new bank operates under the Bank of the Carolinas name. It has five full-service branches and one mortgage loan office in Rowan and Davie counties. A sixth full-service branch is slated to open in Harrisburg in October.

Companies that were founded in Rowan County remain major players in the local economy. Food Lion began as Food Town, founded in 1957 by brothers Brown Ketner and Ralph Ketner and their friend, Wilson Smith, and is now one of the largest grocery store chains in the Southeast. A total of 87 friends and acquaintances in Rowan County who took a chance on the fledgling store as its original shareholders have since become “Food Lion millionaires.”

 Today, Food Lion boasts of 1,125 supermarkets in 11 states, and employs an estimated 86,000 people. Of that number, some 2,370 work at the company’s Salisbury headquarters, making it the county’s third largest employer (Freightliner, a truck manufacturing company with 2,500 employees in Rowan, is No. 1). Food Lion’s parent company is Delhaize America, the U.S. division of the Delhaize Group of Brussels, Belgium.

Improved Health Care
When Charles Elliott became the new CEO of Rowan Regional Medical Center earlier this year, he found a long list of exciting projects awaiting his involvement.

The biggest project under way at the institution is an 18-month expansion and renovation of the Emergency Department. The project is slated to be completed in January. “We have grown from about 30,000 visits a year to about 48,000 visits a year,” Elliott says. “We really need to expand that facility.”

Founded in 1936, the hospital is also expanding its cardiology services and women’s services. “Advantages in cardiology have allowed us to provide a much larger range of services than we have in the past,” Elliott says.

Likewise, advances in cancer care allow the medical center to provide a much wider ranger of services locally. “Our population base has grown, and our number of physicians has grown, too,” Elliott says. “You don’t have to leave town to have advanced medical care.”

Other specialty units at Rowan Regional include a Joint Camp for patients who are having hip and knee replacements; inpatient and outpatient psychiatric services; advanced neurology services and a stroke program.

Rowan Regional, which employs about 1,200 with a staff of nearly 150 physicians, is also looking to increase its number of endocrinologists and internists. Rowan Diagnostic Practice will be adding pulmonologists to its staff, Elliott says, noting that “these specialties will help tremendously.”

The new Kiser Building, located on the hospital campus, houses not only the administrative offices, but a family practice, an OB-GYN practice, a cardiology practice, a neurology practice, a urology practice and a diagnostic center — with additional space available for new physicians.

“This hospital has a great medical staff,” says Elliott, who has spent time in his new position getting out and meeting employees. “Every individual on this staff is very committed to this organization. We have some longtime employees who are dedicated to this place and what they do.”

The hospital is licensed for 300 inpatient beds, but Elliott says that more than half of Rowan Regional’s income is through outpatient services. A new outpatient surgery center is slated to open early next year on Julian Road. The facility will also include a diagnostic center.

A Concentration of Colleges
Rowan County is home to three institutions of higher learning: Rowan-Cabarrus Community College (which has dual campuses in Salisbury and Concord), Catawba College and Livingstone College.

RCCC began its existence as Rowan Technical Institute in 1963. Dr. Richard Brownell, who’s led the college the past 25 years, says that the biggest challenge was changing the name a little more than a decade ago. “I could see how fast the southern part of the county was growing around the metropolis of Charlotte,” he says. “We had to face that. We had been serving Cabarrus County for years, but not in a way that would meet the burgeoning needs of that county.”

A Committee of 100 set the stage to create the state’s first multi-campus college in 1991, and it’s been a great success — maybe even too much so, because finding money to fund one campus, much less two, is extremely difficult, Brownell says. Still, he adds, “We’re often a college of first choice for people coming out of high school.”

RCCC is also a choice for those looking for more. “You’d be surprised how many people come here to get an associate’s degree who already have four-year degrees or master’s degrees,” Brownell says. That’s especially true in slow economic times. Local residents have flocked to the college for additional training or retraining. Enrollment has increased 70 percent over the past five years, and had increased 13 percent in 2001 alone before a cap was placed on enrollment. “Community colleges change lives,” Brownell says. “Rowan-Cabarrus Community College is centered on workforce development.”

The college offers occupational programs, and short-track classes, with focused training for specific skills. Brownell points out that all firefighters, emergency personnel and police officers receive much of their training through the community college. RCCC is well known for its nursing and other healthcare programs. Continuing education courses take place at more than 150 locations around the community.

Not surprisingly, two hot areas, according to Senior Vice President Jerry Chandler, are information systems technology courses and automotive systems technology courses. RCCC offers even more flexibility and accessibility for students through its distance learning programs, which include online courses, telecourses (courses broadcast on cable TV) and teleconferencing courses (classes broadcast from campus to remote locations).

Catawba College was founded in 1851 as a private liberal arts college by the Reformed Church, which later became the United Church of Christ. The college still maintains its UCC affiliation. Its 19th president, Dr. Robert Knott, took office on June 1 (see story, page 50).

Livingstone College was founded in 1879 as a liberal arts institution by a group of AME Zion ministers. The college remains largely supported by the AME Zion church. Its 11th president, Dr. Algeania W. Freeman, assumed office on Feb. 1, 2001. That same year, the college’s board of trustees approved a five-year strategic plan. Its 10 goals include enhancing recruitment and retention, becoming a customer-service driven campus and becoming a college of first choice for students. Its freshman class this fall numbers 350.

Also included in the strategic plan is Freeman’s agenda of 10 goals, which include increasing Livingstone’s ranking among historically black colleges and universities, growing the student body to 1,200 to 1,500 students, building the scholarship endowment and reminding everyone associated with Livingstone College to remember that “We are Living Logos of Livingstone.”

Put all of the major components together — quality of life, economic development, healthcare and education — and it’s easy to see why Rowan County has been a lifelong home to so many.

Then there are those who do leave but eventually come back. Steven Fisher, the executive vice president and general counsel of F&M Bank in Granite Quarry, falls in that category. As a young attorney who worked and lived in the upscale Buckhead section of Atlanta, he says, “I left for Atlanta not to return. I absolutely loved it. It’s a great city. But getting married and having kids changed things.”

He and his wife, Robin, also a Rowan County native, sat down and made a list of what they wanted in a community. When the list was complete, they had narrowed their choices between Salisbury and Marietta, Ga., an Atlanta suburb. “And Salisbury trumps Marietta in my mind,” says Fisher. “We have more accessibility here. Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Charlotte are equidistant. We have preserved our historic buildings. Moving back here was just comfortable. Salisbury is a great old shoe — you just slide it on and it’s comfortable. . . .  I needed to leave to appreciate what I had.”

Dr. William W. Webb III is different from Fisher in that he always thought he’d return to Salisbury. He opened his orthodontics practice in January 2001. Dr. Bret Busby, another Rowan County native, joined him this past June. “For me, it was a family decision,” Webb says. “My grandparents and parents are still here. My brother is a dentist and he will start his practice in August.”

Webb’s wife is from the Durham-Chapel Hill area, and they considered that area, as well as Wilmington. “Ultimately, we decided that Wilmington was a little bit to far to be away from our parents,” Webb says. “And Salisbury has that small, hometown feel.”

Webb will get a chance to see his family pretty often, the new Busby/Webb Medical Building will house Salisbury Dermatology, his father’s practice; Busby and Webb Orthodontics; and his brother’s general dentistry practice.

These decisions don’t surprise Judy Newman, the executive director of the CVB. A Rowan County native, she moved away with her family at age 4, chose to return to Salisbury in 1979 and hasn’t considered a move since. “Those who do leave to go out and make their way in the world move back here to raise their families,” she says. “This is a community oriented area that has everything you could possibly want.”

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