On Tuesday night, Sen. Gene McLaurin hosted what he hopes will be the first of many future meetings of what he calls the Young Leaders Advisory Council. The council is made up of business and community leaders in their 20s, 30s and 40s throughout Anson County and other neighboring counties.
McLaurin said he got the idea from a similar group of young professionals in Scotland County, which is also part of the five-county district he serves in the N.C. Senate. “I’ve been impressed by the number of young people taking on leadership roles in their community,” McLaurin said. “I feel it would be a great opportunity for you all.”
McLaurin had everyone present at the meeting to introduce themselves and talk about their professional affiliations.
The get-together was held at Southern Medley, which is owned by Elizabeth Schafer and Jeff Oliver. Schafer said that she and Oliver bought a 175-year-old home in the northwest corner of Wadesboro. “We thought we’d get jobs here but quickly realized we had to make our own jobs,” she said, so she opened the winery and Oliver runs Oliver’s restaurant on East Wade Street.
Also present were community leaders from Richmond, Stanly and Union counties, as well as educators, attorneys, and representatives from CMH Space and Hornwood, Inc., in Anson County, Wadesboro Town Manager Alex Sewell, Assistant District Attorney Robert Gilmore and Alex Gaddy with HOLLA!
After the introductions were made, McLaurin said, “I want to hear from you. I want to know what’s on your minds.” He added that the General Assembly goes back into short session on May 14, and teacher pay and tax reform will both be high-priority items.
Alex Gaddy spoke up first, saying that he’s always an advocate for young people. “We have a lot of latch-key kids in Anson County,” he said. “There’s no boys’ club, no girls’ club, no Y. We do have HOLLA! but we need to multiply that tenfold. When you look at economic development, attracting businesses, CEOs will say, ‘but where are my kids going to play?’”
While a 4-H program in Richmond County focuses on keeping youth from returning to the juvenile court system, Gaddy stressed that Anson needs to reach kids before they get to that point.
McLaurin agreed. “One of the things I’m concerned about is we’ve reduced funding for early childhood education,” he said. “And a lot of kids are not ready for kindergarten.”
Schafer stated that she’d like to see more incentives for small businesses. “We need a coffee shop, a bakery, an art gallery,” she said. McLaurin acknowledged there has been a lot of debate in Raleigh about incentives for businesses. He said he wrote a bill to provide more incentives for businesses in rural counties, but it did not make it out of committee.
“Larger areas don’t need incentives as much as rural communities,” he said.
“Having a thriving downtown can be more valuable than big business,” pointed out Miranda Chavis, museum manager at the Hamlet Depot. “It makes sense to invest in those areas.”
Information was also shared about a young entrepreneur program in Scotland County, in which high school students learn to be CEOs of their own businesses.
McLaurin said he visits area high schools and middle schools often, and is always disheartened by how few hands are raised when he asks who wants to be a teacher. “That is not what I want for North Carolina,” he said, adding that he voted against the state budget that reduced teacher pay.
Peachland-Polkton Elementary School Principal Travis Steagall said that when he first started in education, “South Carolina was kind of a joke. Now it’s gotten to where North Carolina is a joke. My wife could drive nine miles to Chesterfield, and make $9,000 more.” He added that the school’s counselor is resigning at the end of the year and going to a school in South Carolina.
“My email inbox is full of stories like that,” McLaurin said. “Teachers want to give up and find other jobs. We’ve got to — at minimum — pay our teachers the national average. I can assure you, that’s going to be a top priority for me.” McLaurin finished the get-together with the official North Carolina toast, and added that he hopes anyone present will contact him with any ideas or concerns they have.
Future meetings of the Young Leaders Advisory Council are being planned. Sen. McLaurin can be reached at 919-733-5821 or by email at Gene.McLaurin@ncleg.net.