This is an out of character post for the ‘mission’ and overall focus on this blog, so the author begs your indulgence. I had always intended this blog/outlet to be for me a sort of Hyde Park debating mini-platform to comment on social, cultural, and political trends in the US from a “veteran psychiatrist’s point of view.
But this story is too ‘big’ for that.
When I and my family moved to this part of western North Carolina after nearly five years as the consultant helper psychiatrist for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians’ reservation health care system, the “Qualla Boundary” as is more properly known, this area was listed as the eighth most hard hit economic sinkhole in the country. Jobs were almost nonexistent except in the large start institutions that have been in this area for literally over a hundred years. They include the western North Carolina catchment area for the residential treatment center for the severely intellectually disabled, the state psychiatric hospital, a former adolescent-young adult prison unit which was quite forward thinking, progressive and rehabilitative with its clients, a local hospital and of course the area’s consolidated school system.
Over the previous two decades, this area had seen literally 90% of its traditional jobs in tobacco, furniture manufacturing and textiles go overseas largely to China and Mexico after the passage of NAFTA during the Clinton Presidency which was supposed to help through globalization of trade. The exact opposite happened.
Hickory NC, one of the cities of this MSA’s (metropolitan statistical area) economic scope lost over half its jobs and over 25% of its population which were reflected in the same devastating proportions in the school systems’ populations in the three counties and cities. Families and their children moved out of the droves. Schools began to show enrollments rates of nearly 50%. Counties were faced with closing many commonly accepted institutions, agencies and services from schools to police forces. Economic austerity suddenly became a way of life. Businesses cancelled plans to build new restaurant outlets in the three county area by the droves. Even law and chiropractic offices began to decrease in number.
Hickory used to host a gargantuan furniture convention twice a year at a specially built exhibition building, the “Furniture Mart” that rivalled such such facilities as the Muscone Center in San Francisco and Hickory barely had a population of 35,000 or so. Not an MSA with over 1-2 milion in the drawing economic area by any stretch of the imagination. The area was THE WORLD’S center for furniture fashion akin to the impact and importance of women’s fashion shows and revealing of famous designers’ lines seasonally in such centers of fashion as New York, Paris and Milan. Except Hickory was it for furniture virtually for the world. Tens of thousands of furniture buyers from around the world, even the ultral chic Scandinavian furniture brands came to Hickory to see the new lines and designs at the Mart. They filled motels ranging from Asheville to literally the GreensboroRTP areas communting long distances to attend the daily shows which lasted a week. Central NC is not Las Vegas and does not have hotels like the Mandalay Bay with 47,000 rooms. The lodgings in this entire state until the advent of the Cherokee Casino in the last 12 years, were your average 50 room chain unit. Now the Mart still exhibits twice a year but it is a shadow of its former self.
This area was one of the earliest area in the country to suffer the economic downturn including mortgage foreclosures and families abandoned their homes they could no longer pay for in droves. Banks went bust and were bought up by BIg National Banks at fire sale prices. Real estate went in the deepest tank in the country. In some areas half of businesses everyone everywhere takes for granted, such as McDonalds, CLOSED. Gas stations, department stores, shoe stores, and especially specialty stores closed by the bunches. Strip malls emptied. One had to drive to larger cities to buy anything if it was not carried at the sole surviving WalMart.
The several years ago the Cherokee Tribe and a tech firm called Drake, ‘strung’ the highest speed Internet backbone line in the country running from Raleigh and North Carolina State Unversity State University, to Durham and Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. Then it went to Greensboro, to Winston=Salem and Wake Forest University-Bowman Gray School of Medicine, and then all the way to the community college in Murphy NC, at the extreme western tip of the state. Murphy unfortunately is only famous for the several year hide out for Eric Rudolph the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Bomber who eluded the FBI for years. That Drake-Cherokee Internet backbone also went down to Greenvillle SC to Furman University and Greenvillle Technical Collegel one of the most innovative community colleges in the entire country because of its close affiliation with BMW which had set up its humungous manufacturing plant comparable to Boeing almost in Seattle in size in the late 1980’s saving the Upstate of South Carolina from the generalized economic failure that was enveoloping almost all of North Carolina after NAFTA.
Google I expect and speculate started watching alll this, especially the start of high tech small start up companies migrating from Atlanta to Ashevillle because of the Drake Cherokee backbone. Google sometime in the late 1990’s made the decicision that truly high speed Internet lines had to become commonplace in this country. It also made the decision that the phone companies WERE not going to make the investment necessary to do so as they were focusing on their short term plans for profits from piddly cellular phone upgrades and service. Stupid short sighted companies falling behind the curve and not even realizing it…
Google looke at the NC Internet backbone as it announced plans to shake up the the industries and starts its own ONE GIGABIT speed Internet service in Kansas City the first city it selected as its try-out and the Internet Gold Rush was On! Did the phone companies notice or figure out what was happening, no they were to preoccupied with competing with another dying outdated technology, the reviled cable companies. After all Eric Schmitt of Google just said this week that the Internet as we know it now, “is dying.” He means the companies who are doing it under the current technology are dinosaurs and do not even know it yet. He’s right.
So Google a few years ago suddenly announced it was building a lab and huge server farm in lowly Lenoir NC which had virtually emptied since the the 1980’s. It found the NC backbone, a readiness of a desperate business community to welcome anything even a drastic “high falutin'” enterprise like fiber optics from Google to rejuvenate their area. The three area community colleges received monies from the Golden Leaf Tobacco multi-BiLLION dollar national settlement to retrain displaced workers from the big three industries that had been destroyed by globalization. They were savvy enough to foresee programs to train workers in the technologies in the New Age of the Internet based businesses and its hundreds of support mini-industries and future companies would be needed and establlished such companies at Buncombe Tech (Asheville), Western Piedmont Community College (Morganton), Catawba Community College (Hickory) and Caldwell Community College (Lenoir NC). It worked!
Google sank an initial $600M into its first installation in Lenoir out in the “boonies,” and then another $600M was announced and building started for an addition over a year ago in the same area.
And now, just yesterday, January 27, 2015 Google announced Charlotte AND the Raleigh Durham area will be two of the next several cities in the eitre USA selected for Google Fiber Internet! Our Gold Rush will now really take off. Kids are taking coding camps by the dozens for free the three community colleges every summer even before the Raspberry Pi hit the world scene. A new STEM academy has started for the school system in Morganton housed in a renovated beautiful educational building not used in years, Jeter Hall (not named after Derek Jeter unfortunately as that would have helped PR…) at the North Carolina School for the Deaf in existence since the 1890’s.
So things are really shakin’ down here in Hicksville Central North Carolina, and as they say on the longest running tv show in in American, ” COME ON DOWN!”