Commentary: A sustainable local economy requires real jobs

Commentary: A sustainable local economy requires real jobs
March 22
08:18 2019

By Algenon Cash

A recent jobs announcement in Greensboro captured my attention – the city council passed a $426,000 incentives package to recruit 213 jobs to downtown. The press release jumped out because I’ve been feeling as if the only growth in Winston-Salem’s downtown in the past few years has been a flurry of new apartment units, hotel rooms, breweries, and restaurants. None of these assets provide true sustainable growth.

The jobs package in Greensboro will provide 213 jobs paying $54,014 a year – median annual earnings for workers in the U.S. is $46,644.

Undoubtedly, some residents may disagree with the idea of using incentives to lure corporate jobs and, of course, the difference of opinion whether these jobs are new or relocated is important to that debate.  However, my argument centers on the critical need for the local economy to grow in a healthy and sustainable manner, which requires an expansion of jobs not solely reliant on residents’ discretionary income.

The success of restaurants and bars are inextricably tied to consumers having leftover income to purchase their goods. Many of the people working in these businesses actually cannot afford to have a date night there.

Economic development that is void of creating high paying jobs doesn’t increase economic mobility and leaves a majority of residents in a position where they are unable to enjoy all the new urban living units, chef-inspired restaurants, or hipster watering holes.

Just a few startling facts about the local community: Forsyth County is ranked 5th on the list of counties where the American dream is dead, Winston-Salem is the 44th poorest city in America, and 24 percent of citizens live in poverty.

You never hear these facts when local leaders tout the latest national magazine ranking Winston-Salem as one of the top “best places to live” or most “livable downtowns in America.” How can you truly have a “livable downtown” in a community where a sizable number of residents cannot afford to live in downtown?

I applaud city leaders for having the vision to transform blighted tobacco factories into glimmering hubs of technology and innovation. But the average poverty-stricken resident in Winston-Salem won’t find an opportunity in the Innovation Quarter; in fact, most of those well-paying jobs go to professionals relocating from other communities.

Likewise, I firmly understand that developing condos, apartments, restaurants, and bars were essential to attracting people back into downtown – but the focus must shift.

We must pivot to more clearly defining what we want our local community to become and what capital, physical, and human resources are necessary to achieve the goal. Then deliberately employ those resources to attract, shape, and retain corporate jobs in select industries that contribute to broad growth – broad in the sense that everyone wins, not simply downtown residents.

Some may argue the local small business owners and their new cafes, hotels, and taprooms create jobs – which they do – but they rarely allow for a worker to live more than paycheck to paycheck. Large corporations often develop employment opportunities that lead to higher livability standards, providing key benefits such as healthcare and retirement.

Residents must challenge local public and private sector leaders to diversify the city’s economy in such a way that our top four regional employers are no longer government and non-profits, deploy more capital into workforce development that prepares workers for higher paying job opportunities, less taxpayer funded loans to private downtown development, and more funding toward economic mobility measures such as free and expanded public transit.

Algenon Cash is a nationally recognized speaker and the managing director of Wharton Gladden & Company, an investment banking firm. Reach him at

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