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Caution urged on ranking
Monday, October 14, 2013
By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer
An annual report lists Martinsville as the seventh-poorest city in America, but local officials cautioned that such information should be viewed in the proper context.
The U.S. Census Bureau last week released its annual American Community survey, which ranks the communities with the highest and lowest median incomes, according to a release from the bureau.
The list ranked 2,120 metropolitan and micropolitan areas to determine the top — and bottom — 10 based on household income. The median household income in the U.S. in 2012 was $51,371, according to the release.
Nine of the 10 poorest cities were in the South, with Lumberton, N.C., topping the list with a median income of $28,293. Martinsville’s median income was listed at $32,196.
Census data listed the population of the Martinsville area at 67,300 — roughly that of Martinsville and Henry County combined.
Henry County Administrator Tim Hall didn’t speculate on the financial woes of every community on the list — “I’m not an economist,” he said. However, he said he could see a common thread that Henry County and Martinsville share with the other eight Southern towns.
“Looking at the list, I’d say a lot of them were old manufacturing towns,” he said.
With that in mind, Hall said, it is important to look at such income numbers in context of the vast number of jobs lost in the region during the past 20 years after the North American Free Trade Agreement led to the outsourcing of many jobs overseas.
“When manufacturing left us ... (there were periods where) we lost 1,000 a day,” he said. “There’s nowhere you can go to make up 1,000 jobs a day. Economies have to be rebuilt brick by brick.”
Jim Adams, chairman of the Henry County Board of Supervisors, said it is important not to overreact after reading such reports.
“Any time you see numbers that aren’t as flattering to your area as you’d like them to be, you know your efforts have to stay the course” to achieve economic development, he said. “Hopefully, as jobs are created, the wage scale can be raised.”
Adams said that in high-unemployment areas such as Martinsville and Henry County, “people will accept a job regardless of wage scale. Even if they’re just slightly above minimum wage, you don’t turn your back on that, because there are people who are willing to accept a job to have a job.”
However, he stressed that it is important for area leaders not to be satisfied creating jobs with low salaries.
“Those are not the jobs we desire to have one after another in the area ... In some instances, the higher paying jobs demand a higher skill set.”
Aaron Burdick, executive director of the West Piedmont Planning District Commission, said the commission frequently studies similar data, and he believes this region is better positioned to grow than others on the list.
“If you were to look at each of those, they’re going to be rural, they’re going to be traditionally involved in textile manufacturing,” said Burdick, who also works with the Center for Rural Virginia. In Martinsville, however, “you have an infusion of new ideas, new money and new opportunities” for education and entrepreneurism. “That’s not something that, prior to three years ago, was evident.”
Adams cited advanced manufacturing education and workforce training at Patrick Henry Community College (PHCC) and the New College Institute (NCI) as examples of how the area is growing a skilled workforce to meet the demands of modern companies.
“I think that we’re seeing now very much a parallel between job creation and filling job creation with the skill sets it demands,” Adams said. “I don’t think they’re pulling against each other; I think we’re pulling together.”
Burdick said the area should continue to promote resources such as NCI and PHCC to illustrate how it is becoming more innovative and growing a workforce.
“We’re really starting to build on that and use that as a sales pitch” for outside entities, Burdick said. “The city and county are doing a great job” marketing the area. “We have some momentum ... we have more success stories than we’ve had in the past 10 years” or more. “We need to continue to tout that.”
Although the income survey is important to consider, Hall said, it should not color the way one looks at the region.
“I could do a study today and make us look as good or bad as I want us to look,” he said. He added that when talking with people in the community, he tells them, “sometimes, we are our own worst enemy, because we allow ourselves to be dragged down by the negativity” presented by a high jobless rate or other negative economic data. “We have some really, really good things happening here.”
Martinsville Mayor Kim Adkins agreed. “I don’t get bogged down (by) surveys like this ... Martinsville has come a long way in the last five years. We are doing all the right things in taking a holistic approach to economic development.”
In addition to investing in education, Adkins said efforts by the city and county to invest in projects such as shell buildings and utilities infrastructure at local industrial parks soon will pay dividends.
In five more years, “we won’t be on a list such as this, and you’ll see Martinsville on a list similar to” the top 10 fastest growing communities in the country, she said.