Economy needs a calling card

Published 10:28 am Saturday, October 16, 2010

Franklin has as much chance of becoming “America’s Solar City” as this columnist has of winning a Pulitzer, but City Councilman Greg McLemore makes an important point:

Franklin and Western Tidewater need a new economic identity.

The old identity — a one-horse mill town with union wages — is gone forever. Economic developers’ success at job creation and a complete recovery will hinge largely on the community’s ability to create a new identity that emphasizes growth sectors of the economy but is not tied to a single company.

McLemore’s idea of solar panel production and a solar-powered city is worth a look by people much smarter than me. Count me as skeptical.

Others have suggested that Franklin become a “green” hub of alternative-energy production and environmentally friendly manufacturing. The paper mill’s campus and infrastructure give the community a leg up on that front. I worry that the green movement is a fad built on flimsy economics and government subsidies that could go away overnight with a shift of the political winds. Still, it’s worth exploring fully given the obvious compatibility with the mill site and the region’s plentiful “wood basket.”

Over breakfast with Franklin native Scott Edwards on Friday emerged the idea of another sector on which Western Tidewater could hang its hat: health care. More specifically, he talked about the information and business aspects of health care, such as call centers that handle physician referrals.

Scott, the son of Dr. Robert and Mary Edwards, is a successful businessman in the Nashville, Tenn., area. Like many of his generation who grew up in Franklin, he has a soft spot for the community that nurtured him and gives his hometown much of the credit for the personal and professional success he has enjoyed. Though he’s unlikely to ever live here again, he cares deeply about Franklin’s well-being.

Government reforms notwithstanding, health care is and will remain big business in this country as the population ages and Baby Boomers reach retirement. A simple Google search revealed a dozen or more companies that operate call centers for physician referrals. One company has had success opening call centers in former mill towns, especially those, like Franklin, that once served as corporate headquarters and employed both white-collar and blue-collar personnel. These call centers employ hundreds of people and pay good wages.

In 90 minutes of breakfast chatter, other good ideas surfaced.

The community leadership needs to have dozens of these conversations. Many smart people — both current and former residents — have valuable input to offer, if they are simply asked.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is