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Lincoln Joins Alliance

Area leaders believe that in order for counties to prosper economically, they have to work together as a region. Lincoln County commissioners took the first step toward starting that teamwork effort Monday night, when they voted unanimously to approve the Future Forward Economic Alliance’s Regional economic Growth Strategy. Future Forward is an initiative organized by Congressman Cass Ballenger’s office and includes 12 counties, starting at Lincoln and Iredell and fanning out west, said Barry Matherly, executive director of the Lincoln Economic Development Association. “It was felt that when you looked out nationally, that that was one of the hardest hit areas with the downturn of the economy,” Matherly said. This was mostly due to the presence of textiles, furniture and fiber optic industries, which are all prevalent in the Hickory and Caldwell area, Matherly said. Those three industries were some of the worst hit during the downturn. A committee appointed by Ballenger’s office spent one year researching different aspects of the region’s economy and what could be done to improve it. The group came up with 10 strategies to implement the initiative’s vision. The first is to create a network of regional alliances to implement strategies built on existing organizations or alliances of existing institutions. A committee, which has not been formed yet, would serve as a conduit for federal funding, Matherly said. “Its job will only be to take money from the federal government and funnel it to counties in this 12-county area,” he said. The committee will most likely be made up of appointees from each county’s commission and several from separate entities like Ballenger’s office and Appalachian State University, Matherly said. Another strategy is to identify transportation corridors as the main focus for future planned development. U.S. 321, which runs from Gaston County to Watauga County, would be a primary focus, Matherly said. “As for Lincoln, that bodes well,” he said. The Future Forward plan identifies 16 high priority regional projects, including a study of N.C. 150, improvements to N.C. 16, a vacant building study, an analysis of fiber optic corridors’ cost gaps, a Catawba River sediment removal project, and a western Catawba/Broad regional water distribution system. And the other projects that aren’t in Lincoln could still be of some benefit, officials said. “If they are 15 miles away, there could be some effect in this area,” Matherly said. Other strategies include an educational campaign, a people-to-job matching system, a learning and innovation center, a market research study, a mega-tourism/retail/industrial project, a high-end technology park and a task force on county’s planning resources. “Seven of those 10 could directly benefit Lincoln County, and all 10, depending on where some of these things land, could indirectly affect the county,” Matherly said. Future Forward leaders will now wait to hear other counties’ decisions. When approved, work will begin on the appointment of the committee.