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Welcome to Catawba County, a wonderful community in the foothills of North Carolina that is within an hour of some of the most beautiful outdoor places and metropolitan locations in the state.
But why leave the county?
Inside its borders, there are mountains and lakes, pastures and woodlands. Weâ€™ve got parks and other recreational opportunities, cultural resources and esteemed institutions of higher education. Thereâ€™s commerce, too: locally owned restaurants and shops that offer unique selections of food, drinks and merchandise. Weâ€™re at the heart of the data corridor; the home of a regional retail distribution center; and a still-busy hub for furniture and textile manufacturing.
It really is a great place to live.
Unfortunately most of the world doesnâ€™t get a chance to see it that way.
It is hard to see the attributes of the place we call home through the haze of negative news that has brought national attention to Catawba County. It is a cloud that impedes every Greater Hickory Metro communityâ€™s efforts to put the best foot forward in promoting a region that sorely needs jobs, economic growth and renewed promise for the future.
Regardless of whether you agree with the words spoken by the Rev. Charles Worley from the pulpit at Providence Road Baptist Church, thereâ€™s no denying the fact that his comments brought a national spotlight to our community. Thereâ€™s no denying the fact that this latest round of media attention portrays citizens of our county as intolerant, uneducated and contentious.
Here, a woman seeking 15 minutes of fame rolls her eyes while the host of a national news program clearly repeats the same question as she struggles to offer a coherent response. She scurries from one media outlet to another â€śdefendingâ€ť her pastor, and as she does, she inflicts pain for all the people around her, including those she thinks she is helping.
There, a makeshift group cobbles together a Facebook protest that draws national response. On Sunday, a group that has every right to voice opposition is expected to draw thousands of fervent people from around the nation â€” people who are upset by a few brief moments of a video clip that might not exactly tell the whole story of a sermon. Those folks are offended by the words of the pastor â€” and they should be â€” but in protesting the statements will they exhibit the same hatred that they find so upsetting?
Both sides of the struggle give the world a glimpse of life in Catawba County, but they are unfair portrayals of our communities and our citizens.
Between the extremes, men and women struggle to support families and try to live by a moral code they believe to be just. Outside the media spotlight, this community is filled with people who just want something better for themselves, their businesses and their schools. There are plenty of folks just â€śtrying to get by;â€ť folks who wonâ€™t align themselves in the war of words that erupted in Maiden.
Unfortunately, while those two factions of combatants get the attention they are seeking, the people in the middle will pay consequences brought on by the world that is taking notice.
Job creators donâ€™t go to places where people are intolerant and filled with hate. Companies donâ€™t locate where bitter debates among citizens threaten to divide not just a community, but a potential workforce. Investors donâ€™t bring money to areas existing under negative news clouds. Young people donâ€™t want to stay around places where they and their friends face prejudice and persecution. Retirees donâ€™t seek places where prospects of confrontations by protesters looms large.
Simply put, all those groups arenâ€™t looking for a place like Catawba County â€” at least the place as it is portrayed through glimpses granted by YouTube videos, Facebook pages and national news programs.
But if the county is going to survive, grow and improve, we need job creators, companies, investors, young people and retirees. More importantly we need to find a way to begin ignoring the attitudes, opinions and personal preferences that divide, and spend more time building unity around what we share in common.
And what we share in common is that we all call home a great place to live, work and play; a place that is full of opportunity if we can only get out of our own way.
Michael Willard is the publisher of The Observer News Enterprise.