Community leaders celebrate collaboration

Published 10:51 am Wednesday, March 12, 2014

FRANKLIN—Leaders from Franklin and Southampton County gathered together Tuesday morning to both celebrate and re-commit to moving the community forward through collaboration.

Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson said that several concerned citizens came together in 2003 to start something special.

“A group of doctors, lawyers, merchants and farmers came together because they realized that things were changing,” he said. “The world was getting much smaller. We were no longer just competing with Suffolk and Isle of Wight County, but with Europe and the entire globe. Agriculture and manufacturing were changing rapidly, and they knew if they didn’t think about it, the world would consume them.

“We had to have a commitment to improve, and figure out what steps the community needed to take to ensure a vigorous economic base.”

Ten years ago, in 2004, that group would ultimately found the Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc. and merge the chambers of commerce.

“Franklin and Southampton County must work together,” Johnson said. “We must leave the rivalries on the football field and basketball court. But when it comes to talking economics and the future, we have to work together.”

That collaboration has produced results, such as retaining Narricut, helping Feridies expand, working with the port and Greenwood RRST, until the unthinkable happened in 2009 with the closure of the paper mill. But, there have been recent successes to add jobs back through diversification with Enviva, the Southampton Power Station, Curtis Contracting, Hampton Farms and Providence Agriculture. Businesses such as Love’s have also committed to moving to Franklin, and City Manager Randy Martin said the city was working with businesses, along with developing walking and bike paths, to help promote eco-tourism.

Doors have also opened with the county to potentially save on resources, such as on utilities.

To celebrate and refocus, the leaders brought back David Dodson with MDC Inc., who was the original facilitator brought in 10 years ago through the efforts of Sol Rawls.

Rawls called Dodson and spoke to him about his program through a Duke University endowment that facilitated collaboration between North and South Carolina communities, and he wanted to be a part of it.

“I told him that the program is for the rural Carolinas, and he said, ‘How are you going to fix that?’” Dodson joked. “Thanks to Mr. Rawls’ creative insistence, he got us involved.

“Mr. Rawls is one of the greatest leaders I have ever met. I don’t have a lot of pictures in my office, but I have a picture of Mr. Rawls.”

Back then, Dodson said, Franklin and Southampton County wanted to cross the fault-line barrier of geography, race and income to make something for everyone.

“You don’t know how rare that is,” he said. “A lot of communities pay lip service to collaboration, but when the hard work comes, they walk away from each other.

“This room, it looks like America,” he added of the diversity in the Regional Workforce Center. “You don’t see enough of this in the South.”

MDC just helped write the plan, but the locals actually carried it out, Dodson said.

“All implementation is local,” he said. “All of you made these results happen.”

Dodson said that back then the community leaders were determined to get ahead of the economic shifts, work across racial lines, educate all young people, do vision planning and make better use of environmental and heritage resources. He said that was still a good plan.

“Whether consciously or not, this is the charter that the community is still acting on,” Dodson said. “This is the playbook for progress.”

Going forward, he said, there were challenges.

One is unemployment, though Dodson said the community has handled the closure of the mill well. He said that 2009 and 2010 were bad years around the country. He added that while Franklin and Southampton County took a worse hit than some others, it has bounced back.

“Your unemployment has declined at a much faster rate than the others,” he said of the Hampton Roads Region and Virginia as a whole. “Maybe not all of the jobs are at the same rate of pay as you had before, but this is a sign of increasing economic vigor.”

Poverty and the education level of the populace are challenges as well, Dodson said.

“There is a heavier occurrence of poverty here, particularly amongst your African-American neighbors,” he said. “Poverty creates challenges with youth development and health. You need to look at what is causing people to not be able to succeed.”

He added that the difference between poverty and success is often educational attainment.

“Today, even more strongly than when we did this work 10 years ago, it is more important to get some education credentials beyond high school,” Dodson said.

He added that with Paul D. Camp Community College, the community had a central piece to improving educational attainment.

“The road out of poverty runs through the community college,” Dodson said. “The community college has to be aligned with working backwards through K-12, and forward with employers.”

The proximity to the Hampton Roads urban center provides both benefits and challenges.

“You are fortunate to be in the halo of a very large and growing region,” he said. “Is it a source for employment? Do you want to be its bedroom? Will you be its rural, historic and environmentally attractive neighbor?

“Be very clear on what identity you want, as this economic engine will have a disproportionate impact on your lives.”

The Franklin City Public School system was brought up in the question and answer portion.

One suggestion was to determine the outcomes and expectancies that you want the schools to work toward, as MDC has helped foster in Durham, N.C., which was developed by business, education and community leaders: By the age of 25, the community wants every young person to have a post-secondary degree. And they are following that and cataloging it through analytics.

Dodson suggests that analytics could play a role in Franklin.

“Look at what fosters momentum, and look at the students who are lost,” he said. “What are the students doing that helps guide them from one grade to another. And also look at what moment you are losing young people on that pathway. That’s all done through analytics. Statistics are friendly.

“You want to have 100 percent momentum on the pathway from kindergarten to community college to the workforce.”

One suggestion was to make sure that by the third grade, every child could read on grade level.

“If at that point they can’t read, then they will be lost,” he said. “That’s a fundamental benchmark.”

Another portion is later on to make sure there is a career development aspect.

“Young people need to be thinking, ‘Who am I? What might I be? What does the future look like?’” he said.

No matter what the next steps are, Dodson added, divided communities don’t develop.

“You have shown that united communities do develop,” he said. “To quote Margaret Mead, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.’”