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County leaders discuss plans for growth

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Initiatives for county discussed during ‘Grow Grayson’ forum

By Shaina Stockton

INDEPENDENCE — A series of upcoming initiatives planned to address growth in areas of tourism, business, health, communication and other needs within the county, were the key topic of this year’s spring “Grow Grayson” forum.
Recently held at the Independence Fire House, Grayson supervisors and County Administrator Bill Shepley presented an updated list of the county’s planned projects in the coming years, seeking input from school and business leaders within the county.
The “Grow Grayson” forum was implemented in 2016 to provide a platform of discussion among county officials, businesses and educators. The groups meets in the spring and fall to share ideas for local economic development.
Col. John Fant, who serves as a supervisor on the county board, said that the goal when starting the Grow Grayson forum was to tackle population retention and growth. To this end, he shared his belief that the success of this goal will be because of community effort.
Before Shepley spoke, Fant commended the administrator, stating, “He has brought new energy, and a fresh approach to economic and workforce development during his time here.”
Shepley took to the podium and reminded everyone present that this was an informal discussion, and to feel free to cut in with any questions or ideas.
During his time serving as county administrator, Shepley opened by stating that one of his first goals with the position was to get as much feedback as possible from the community, to get a better understanding of the needs here.
“A lot of exciting things are going to happen if we work together and communicate,” Shepley said. “We want to make this a place where people want to stay their entire lives; and in many ways it already is, but we want to make it even better.”
Shepley added that he wants to see improvements that enhance the character of the county; but he does not want to change it.
As someone who spent most of his life living in cities, Shepley shared that he has a perspective that is relatable to perspective tourists.
“The other day, I saw a bald eagle, and I was amazed. And I’m amazed by something I see just about every time I ride with Mitch [Smith, deputy county administrator], doing business in the Twin Counties,” he said.
By seeing what most who grew up in the area are used to each day through a newer perspective, Shepley also sees what could potentially draw other visitors to the area.
“Country stores are the norm here; but are a novelty to people who live in cities. Every time my son brings his friends up here, they have to go to Rixey’s Market, and eat lunch at the Fox store up in Grant. For city people, that’s what you go out of town to see,” Shepley said. “These are the things that we could potentially capitalize on.”

The initiatives:
Moving on to the county’s list of initiatives, Shepley provided a breakdown for each idea, and heard questions, ideas and commentary from those who were present.
The initiatives that were discussed during the forum included:

Federally qualified healthcare center (FQHC) — One of the biggest problems that local healthcare facilities are facing, according to feedback Shepley has received, is the trend of patients using emergency services departments, for non-emergency services. Another issue, he added, was availability for medical services for people with lower incomes.
“Right now, some of our people are driving 53 minutes on average for their healthcare needs,” Shepley said.
To have a local FQHC, certain requirements need to be met to establish the community’s need. Grayson County’s score in terms of need, was a nine out of 10, according to Shepley.
“We were classified as a county in desperate need of healthcare,” Shepley said. Not only would a FQHC provide better access to healthcare in this area, but it would also provide opportunities for employment.
Local healthcare representatives Twin County Regional Healthcare and Alleghany Memorial Health offered their support to the county for this idea; stating that it would help them maintain a more appropriate level of patients in our local emergency rooms.
Someone asked about the difference between an FQHC and an urgent care office. Shepley explained that FQHCs offer many of the same resources as an urgent care facility, in addition to services like x-rays and lab testing.

Increasing broadband access —  Another major issue within the community currently is the lack of broadband access in many areas of the county. To address this issue, Shepley explained that a committee has been working closely on an assessment of the county, to address this issue as soon as possible.
“When we complete [a study of our area], we plan to look for a public/private partnership in order to expand our broadband access,” Shepley said.
The county administration is focused on this project to improve access to information and tools online for students, business owners, non-profit entities, public safety officials, and other organizations and individuals.
Fant pointed out that broadband is defined by a 25 MBPS (megabytes per second) download speed and a 3 MBPS upload speed.
“Currently, 58 percent of the county’s population does not meet that standard,” Fant said.
An attendee interjected that he knew of several people in Alleghany County, who moved to the area to start home businesses because of internet availability in that area.

Retirement community — There is talk of potentially creating a gated retirement home community within the county, equipped with small homes for residents and full medical staff to meet every need.
The idea behind this initiative, Shepley explained, is to provide a safe environment with health and wellness resources readily available, while simultaneously giving them their independence and a community for socialization.
Shepley added that the project would give students in the building trades program an opportunity to practice their skills; and when the community was finished, it would also provide employment opportunities.
“I recently went to Whitetop and gave a presentation to them; and during the discussion, a woman raised her hand and told me that 50 percent of the people in that area were elderly and living alone,” said Shepley. “That was one of the things on my mind working with this idea.”

Other initiatives
Addressing a few other ideas, Shepley mentioned the coordination of emergency medical services within the county — a new foundation is currently being built under the new commission, implemented earlier this year. He also discussed the creation of an agricultural advisory council, and the construction of a wellness facility.  
Shepley also turned attention to a project in Saxapahaw, a former mill town in North Carolina. The community there, he said, renovated a large historical building to create a central hub for entertainment and local events.
“A combination of grants turned an old mill there into a central place where people can enjoy a variety of things. This town has been revitalized as a result,” Shepley said.
He shared that he was sad that the Fries Mill was already gone, as it would have been an ideal spot for such a project. However, he put out a request for suggestions as to a spot in the area that could be revitalized and work as a draw for tourism and local citizens alike.

Also during the meeting, Grayson Career and Technical Education (CATE) Principal Angie Lawson stated that the CATE Center is always open to summer internship opportunities that businesses may have available for their students. She added that their student curriculums make a conscious effort to build skillsets that are relevant to the needs of the area.
Regarding the mention of building trades’ role in the retirement community construction, she noted that building trades is currently in the process of putting together an initiative to build and ship small homes as a potential revenue source for the CATE Center, in addition to providing hands-on instruction for students.
Shepley thanked Lawson for her work with the CATE Center, saying, “That is the central place where we connect all of these entities. We hope that it will continue to grow in the months and years to come.”
In reference to Lawson’s upcoming retirement, Shepley added, “We’re going to miss you, and we wish we could talk you out of it.”
Shepley also thanked Col. Fant for his work; as well as Crossroads Institute director and Grayson Supervisor Chair Brenda Sutherland, whom he noted has “done fantastic work over at Crossroads.”
Shepley also added a reminder that the county is always seeking input from the community.
“Stop by and tell us what you want to see. Remember that we work for you; and that it’s our job to listen to the county needs and translate these ideas into actions,” Shepley said.
Closing the meeting, Fant thanked everyone for attending, and invited everyone to enjoy a boxed lunch, courtesy of the CATE Center’s culinary students.