Saluda renewal came after facing mix of struggles

Published 8:39 pm Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Editors Note: The Bulletin recently asked outgoing Saluda Mayor Rodney Gibson to share his thoughts as he leaves office after 20 years of service to the small, mountain town in western Polk County. The following is his response.

by Rodney A. Gibson

First and most importantly I want to express my heartfelt thanks to the Saluda Community for giving me the honor of serving you in a variety of capacities over the last 20-plus years.

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In particular, I want to thank those that stayed with me for the whole trip because I can never repay your support and friendship. Many have sent me messages and notes and I cant thank you enough for your support. I tried to serve with honesty, integrity and compassion for the people and now know that many tired of my leadership and approaches.

But I can assure you that I honestly tried to prepare you for the future while retaining our Saluda Way.

Next I want to thank the wonderful people that work every day to ensure that the City of Saluda delivers the services, the professional staff that is our employees.

We have never been as blessed, as we are now, with a caring, capable, honest and professional cadre of public servants. They have shown time and time again that they willingly go beyond the call of duty. Treat them like a treasure, because they are.

And last, but by any measure not least, I want to publicly thank my gorgeous and lovely wife, Melody. She has been and continues to be my pillar of strength in the good times and bad.

At the risk of being crass, please respond to the annual Saluda Library fund raiser generously so that we can finally get the Library and Community Center note paid.

I-26 changed downtown

When Melody and I chose to make Saluda our permanent home in 1979, it was done with enthusiasm and hope for the future even though Saluda was not at its best time in history. The real driver in changing the economic fortunes of Saluda came with the opening of I-26. &bsp;

Saluda suddenly became hidden and out of the way of a modern life. With bigger towns becoming more accessible, more shopping was done where a wider variety and lower costs existed. &bsp;

An almost instant impact was felt as the new economic realities took hold. The business district eventually became smaller Wards, Paces, Western Auto, a couple of gas stations, Saluda Mountain Crafts, Ryan & Boyles, and J.C. Thompsons was about it.

In this environment, a very optimistic Melody decided to go into the retail business with Grandmas Attic in the building that is now Green River BBQ. We had to cut the building out of a mountain of kudzu but we got the job done with a lot of sweat and calamine lotion (there was also poison oak in that kudzu forest).

At that time, Saludas wastewater was treated in a serious of failing and inadequate septic tanks (when it was treated). The Saluda Mountain Telephone Co. had phone lines that used telephone poles in some locations and trees and bushes at other locations. There was a Chief of Police but that was all, and he drove his own personal car. We had a jack of all trades, John Rhodes, looking after what he could for the City.&bsp; &bsp;

There was a small cadre of crafters and artists scattered about town experimenting and developing their skills. Sidewalks, streets, storm drains, the park and cemetery were in need of attention. And with ominous implications, the summer homes were often empty and unused and suffering signs of neglect. &bsp;

In the midst of this was the real jewel of the community the people and their unique way of dealing with lifes challenges. Little by little over time, the people started taking matters into their own hands and the community became more alive, resilient and creative.&bsp; My fondest memories are of the people and energy that began to develop around the community as people began to realize that the fate of the downtown business district did not degrade the quality of life that they enjoyed in Saluda. There were plenty of challenges but once that realization set in, the residents began to invest in themselves and their homes and property.

This was the beginning of the renewal.

In serious disrepair

The renewal was neither quick nor steady and had stalled by the mid-80s. The legacy of neglect was also beginning to catch up with us from an infrastructure perspective and it was going to take bolder actions to move us forward.

We also had the tragedy of losing our Chief of Police in the line of duty. In spite of the impression that people had and still have, Saluda still is not isolated from the dark side of society and it was obvious that public safety was going to become more important in our future.

It is also noteworthy that I-26 brought with it more demands for the Saluda Volunteer Fire Department (SVFD) straining the resources they had as well as the training needed to deal with more complicated emergency response requirements.

Some of you may remember the chemical truck wreck and week-long chemical fire on the Saluda Grade a few years back that challenged and endangered the SVFD and Saludas Police.

It was during this period that we were fortunate enough to employ a real leader in the law enforcement field that built a department that was the envy of even large cities. We are still benefiting from his tenure.

Additionally, there was a struggle dealing with the issue of how to renew and encourage investment in the downtown business district where at least most of the historic buildings were in serious disrepair and in danger of destruction.

Notably the buildings that now house the Purple Onion, Saluda Grade, City Hall, Pebble Dash building, Heartwood Gallery and the Saluda Library and Community Center were empty and deteriorating. &bsp;

A few people gathered, did some serious research and decided that obtaining Historic Registry of these buildings would create some investment incentives.

It took some work and lots of time to convince all the property owners that it was in there best interest and they werent immediately convinced. After a couple of years, the consensus gelled.&bsp;&bsp; &bsp;

From there, the money was raised to pay for the effort which took a lot of volunteer time and several thousand dollars of real money. &bsp;

After several years of work, the designations were complete and it turned out better than conceived in that we had most of a downtown that could be placed on the Historic Registry. A Historic Registry designation promised to bring visitors and tourists, which it did.

Another effort that helped form the foundations of business district renewal was the designation of Hwy. 176 as a North Carolina Scenic Byway. This happened again as the result of some local visionaries and volunteers, not because the Federal government or State of North Carolina thought it was good idea. A scenic byway designation promises to bring visitors and tourists, which it did.

Now that we had a few Saluda assets working in our favor, private individuals began to invest in businesses in the downtown.

As with any business renewal, it takes time for the good ideas to float to the top as the businesses struggled to find the right combinations. From a personal perspective, Melody began her second retail business, Christmas, Etc., as her personal investment in the renewal and continued to invest for over 12 years.

ACA suit, default considered

The Saluda Mayor and Board of Commissioners were also racing to support renewal efforts as well as create a solid foundation for governance. Zoning and subdivision ordinances were updated and a program for implementation and enforcement were put into place.&bsp; &bsp;

The financial condition of the City was slowly improving and its worth noting that there had been bond defaults in the history. The water and wastewater system was in a poor state of repair and a commitment to proper funding and making the enterprise support itself was made.&bsp; &bsp;

Engineering studies were conducted; plans developed and grant requests made. Once again, the citizens, although not happy about it, were stepping up and willing to make the sacrifices needed with increased water/sewer rates.

Then a significant blow to our progress occurred with a lawsuit from the American Canoe Association (ACA) which diverted significant funds and the attention of our resources away from our efforts.

The City was close to declaring default and asking that our City Charter be revoked. This matter was discussed openly in City meetings. After five years, close to $300,000 in expenses and thousands of hours of volunteer work, the lawsuit was finally over and we could put our full attention back on renovating the infrastructure and operations. &bsp;

We also discovered that Saluda was essentially on its own with regard to funding renovations and improvements because we did not qualify for any financial assistance from the State or Federal government (due to the citys high per capita income).

This fact was difficult for many to believe and we had a period of political turmoil until this reality finally became clear to the doubters after money and resources were wasted in pursuit.

In recent times we have been successful only because Mother Nature provided a basis for FEMA to step in and Saluda is a critical piece in the new statewide drought relief/response efforts. These are perfect examples of striking when the iron is hot.&bsp; The ideas are of no use until the opportunity is real and can be acted on.

Another wonderful movement occurred in the midst of the turmoil of the ACA lawsuit.&bsp; The long-term effort to fund a library and community center was gaining traction.

After several years of focused fund-raising and community work days, the old, deteriorating Martin Tea House started being renovated and renewed into the Saluda Library and Community Center. The building was donated through the generosity of a former Mayor, Nolan Pace.&bsp; &bsp;

Finished in 2000, it completed the renewal of the downtown and provides an honorable location for the Mayor and Board of Commissioners to conduct business. It was done mostly privately, without funding from Polk County and is still not on equivalent funding status as other Polk County facilities.

But thanks to volunteers that support the Polk County Librarian and the willingness of the city to own and maintain the building, it flourishes as a point of community pride. &bsp;

Saluda has right stuff

These very visible efforts in our renewal cemented the view to the outside world that Saluda and its people were made of the right stuff when it comes to community values and vision.&bsp; We had become a destination for visitors and permanent residence.

Another sign of our success as a community has been our ability to overcome several years of debate and polarization on the issue of updating, revising and re-writing the Zoning (Land Use Plan) Ordinances.

It is critical that we have the ability to work as a community to find consensus on important tools to managing growth so that we dont lose our unique character as a community. &bsp;

During this process I learned an important lesson about community problem solving. It takes honest consideration of all viewpoints to have a reasonable solution. Zoning is a polarizing issue to begin with and to be successful, the fears and concerns of all need to be factored in.

And, here is the big one: those that disagree on the opposite ends of the spectrum have to listen and hear the voice of the others before they can make a positive contribution.

This is the heart of the Saluda Way. To do less is a disservice to the history and legacy of Saluda and its people. To do less is also a disservice to the history and legacy of America.

Saluda now has a solid foundation for a successful future. It is important for the new leadership to understand the significance of the sacrifice and work that has been done to give us an opportunity to be a successful community.

The work was not done so that only a few would benefit. It was done so that all the citizens would benefit.

With success comes many challenges and its important for our new leadership to understand where we are before leaping forward. We are at a point where missteps can have significant impact. Our past was based on the ability to look inward and understand how we could make all our lives better.

We were only influenced and lobbied by members of our community and we mostly had our fate in our own hands.

People, you have done well. But going forward, the outside world has taken note and is beginning to see us as economic opportunity. It will look like chocolate candy to many of us tasty with short-term satisfaction. But remember, eat too much of it and youre body will turn on you.

I want to thank Jeff, Leah, Chris and others at the Tryon Daily Bulletin for encouraging me to write this article in the hopes that it will provide a perspective to the new leadership that is positive and helpful as they take the reins of governance.

Gibsons ten guideposts for governing well

by Rodney A. Gibson

Here are a few thoughts on governing responsibly that have been my guideposts.

Theyve been the subject of debate in a newspaper article or two in the past but theyve stood the test of time.

1. Is the issue something that needs government involvement?&bsp; Whats the least involvement needed?

2. Does it improve the quality of life for all the residents?

3. Who benefits, who loses?&bsp; Always take care of those who have the least first it creates sustainability.

4. Are the beneficiaries looking for tax breaks or special consideration and threaten to go elsewhere if they dont get them?&bsp; Tell them to hit the road.

5. Once you make a rule, everybody conforms no exceptions.

6. If the reason given to do or not to do something is an ideological reason or just opinion with no facts or data, its probably the wrong reason and violates Number 3 above.

7. Keep everything transparent and tell the truth even if people dont want to hear it.

8. Just because you think its broke doesnt mean it is.&bsp; Be patient, you probably dont know everything you need to know yet.

9. If you have a personal interest in the issue (e.g., own property affected by the decision), then youve got a conflict of interest.&bsp; Its absurd to think your decisions wont be affected by the conflict.

10.&bsp; If your ego is the reason for doing (or not doing it), then see number 9 above.