Let’s not think outside the box; let’s break the box!

“Unemployment is corrosive…If we want to remain a leading economy, we change on our own, or change will continue to be forced upon us.”

                                                     Andy Grove, Late Founder and CEO of Intel

As state and federal governments off-load costs for vital services and investment in the commonwealth onto cities and counties, Floyd citizens have two choices: continuing economic deterioration or innovative local government funded by progressive local taxes.

We must boot-strap ourselves to success amid a transformation of the world as wrenching as the disappearance of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, the rise of dependent wage labor, industrialization, the despotism of oligarchy in the Gilded Age, and the destitution of the Depression.

Republicans have won; there will only be token support for local economies and ordinary citizens for the foreseeable future. Local communities will be targets for Wall Street’s privatization schemes to loot the public coffers of waters systems, civic facilities, parking services, and schools. They are selling dependence and poverty.

The private sector by itself cannot meet the challenges of social and economic transformation we are undergoing. There is not the near term payoff private investment demands, the risk is too great, and absentee capital doesn’t care about our children or community, beyond what can be extracted for their profit.

This new “own our own” era requires a strong local government, marching to its own drummer, by looking outside the state at how innovative cities and counties, facing the same challenges, are successfully addressing community and economic health.

Puzzle: How could our county and town be home to so much brainpower and financial wealth yet the majority of its citizens struggle mightily to make ends meet?  

Surely we have the leadership and intellectual horsepower to position Floyd to benefit over the next two decades from the new economy. What keeps us from moving from the bottom fifth to the top fifth of Georgia county rankings?

Perhaps, it is the absence of upward mobility that feeds hopelessness and anger. There are multiple academic and commercial studies that include scientific indicators of Floyd’s community vitality; I share one with you.

A study by Professor Raj Chetty of Harvard followed 90,000 children over twenty-five years. It shows that of the 3,000 counties in the United States, only 173 have a lower rate of upward mobility than Floyd County. Children born in the bottom twenty percent of Floyd’s income distribution have virtually no chance of a better life. You can see with clarity the dead end children born in Floyd County face in this New York Times article and geographic interactive. In my opinion, these children, black and white, see that dead end by the third grade.

The Chetty “Moving to Opportunity Study” correlates increased rates of upward mobility with mixed income housing.  South, East, and North Rome are ghettos of concentrated poverty, which are always nurseries of crime and hopelessness. Local city government, the federal government, and private resources are already building mixed income areas in South Rome. We need to be willing to fill the financial gap when federal and state dollars for that purpose are soon eliminated by the Republican president’s proposed budget.

Both neighborhood vitality and challenges recruiting public safety personnel could be addressed by remodeling abandoned properties, offering home ownership in the compensation package of police officers, EMTs, teachers, and firepersons willing to live in these neighborhoods. Providing below market mortgage interest rates, partial down payments, and covering closing costs, enables city/county employees to build equity in their home; an attractive enhancement to our relatively low salary scale.  Better neighborhoods – less economically and racially segregated – will help to improve schools, increase upward mobility, and reduce crime. It is a win-win.

Local government could enhance our regional visibility and nurture high value added jobs by funding new public solar installations. For instance, thirty Electric Vehicle charging stations on and around Broad Street would attract ‘downsizers’ looking for a walk-able neighborhood. This would support the apartment and condo development funded by the state’s Main Street tax credit program. “Downsizers” are likely to be purchasers of the $32,000 Chevy Volt, whose tires I kicked a few days ago at a local dealer.

Re-power our schools with solar energy. North Carolina offers incentives to establish public/private partnerships installing solar energy arrays on schools. You can read about the School District/Local Government/Private Sector partnerships in Charlotte and Durham here. They have designed financing options for districts; accumulated expertise in energy needs assessment, solar array construction, and operation.

A similar project in Rome would reduce energy costs, create living wage jobs, and develop a niche skilled workforce at the leading edge of sustainable energy technologies. A successfully completed Floyd/Rome “Re-powering Our Schools” project is an opportunity to establish a private enterprise re-powering schools across Georgia and the Southeast.

Rome needs a wind turbine! For several years I lived near an electricity-producing wind turbine, more commonly known as a windmill. On frequent bike trips to its scenic location, I always stopped to hear the gentle “whoosh, whoosh” of its large blades. It was a lone demonstration windmill constructed by the state to provide power for a technical school. It is another opportunity to nurture a high-value added industry with living wage jobs in our county offering a future to our youth.

Government is the only institution large enough, durable enough, and focused on the public welfare to jump-start the transformative projects we need to avoid being a casualty of world-wide disruption. 

Franklin Roosevelt was a pragmatist. He tried anything that had a chance of improving the lives of ordinary citizens.  His spirit of optimism and his focus on fair wages for American workers is needed for the struggle to raise our standard of living in a de-industrialized 21st century Rome and Floyd County.

There are brains and money enough in the educational, medical, and industrial organizations in Floyd to go beyond “thinking outside the box”; we can “break the box.” Floyd could be a model to other localities for sustainable energy, worker rights, high quality of life, and general population health. Only imaginative leadership with unshakable commitment to public welfare at the head of a strong local government and increased tax revenue from those who can most easily bear the burden will make that possible.

The alternative is Andy Grove’s collapse of the social contract, class conflict, and loss of self-sufficiency. In other words, to remain ‘flyover territory.’

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