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  • Les High

The future’s so bright you gotta wear shades

The latest census numbers show that Columbus County is getting older and expected to lag behind the rest of the region in growth over the next several years.

Yet, there is a very bright spot that isn’t reflected in those numbers: a surge in young people who are not only living and working here, but who are also ready and willing to take leadership roles in improving the county.

That’s something to celebrate, so The News Reporter asked its readers to nominate 15 up-and-coming “Fifteen Under 40” young professionals who are under 40 years old and making a difference in Columbus County.

What’s even better, we believe these “Fifteen Under 40” winners will serve as a call to action for other potential young leaders.

All of the nominees were outstanding in his or her civic and/or professional roles. Nominators were also asked to give personal reasons why his or her nominee should be considered. The more complete and personalized the responses, the better the chance for the nominee to make it to the final 15. These responses are compiled in “Kudo’s from the community!” The “Fifteen under 40” publication features a snapshot bio of each winner. After reading them, I’m sure you will agree that the future looks bright for Columbus County.

We fully expect this will become a prestigious, annual award. And, we look forward to celebrating with the winners, their contemporaries and families on July 29 at Vineland Station’s Batten Pavilion for a casual evening of fun and conversation.

Those who aren’t selected shouldn’t be discouraged with so many strong candidates; there will be other opportunities.

A panel of volunteer judges, none of whom work for The News Reporter, reviewed the nominations and chose the top 15. The judges considered a nominee’s impact on Columbus County, success in the nominee’s career, plus his or her involvement, achievement and commitment to improving the quality of life in the community.

There are plenty of ways the county’s young professionals can get involved to improve the quality of life here.

For example, The Columbus Jobs Foundation recently hosted a luncheon for young leaders to encourage them to get involved in volunteering for economic development initiatives. Nearly 40 attended.

Because of their enthusiasm and a desire by the Columbus Jobs Foundation to move the county’s young professionals into serious leadership roles, CJF recently nominated seven of those attendees for election to its governing board. Columbus Jobs Foundation hopes to include more young leaders in its fold. The organization has created a “Millennials” membership level, offered at a lower price, to get more young people actively involved in the task of creating new jobs. When jobs are created, such as those at the new computing center at Tabor City that will pay a starting salary of $30,000, and the S&A railroad tie recycling company that’s coming soon, it’s easy to see where economic development involving both seasoned and young leaders can set Columbus County on a better path. When there is economic development, there are more opportunities for better schools, better restaurants, the creation of other jobs like home construction, and all sorts of things that will make life here better.

Nowhere was the emergence of a vibrant, young professional class more evident than at Dancing With The Vineland Stars, held this past April before a packed house. The event raised more than $42,000, with more than $30,000 going toward the upkeep of Vineland Station. I was at the last Dancing with the Vineland Stars, and a large portion of the crowd and the amateur dancers were in their 30s and 40s. I’d be surprised if any other Dancing With The Stars event in the state is more fun than ours.

Many of the county’s young leaders are alumni of Leadership Columbus, a collaboration between the Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism and Southeastern Community College.

Each class begins with a weekend retreat, attends leadership seminars conducted by professional trainers addressing communication skills, social networking, negotiation and conflict management, tours and panel discussions addressing educational, governmental, business and industry, and health and wellness issues. The group then completes projects that benefit the county. Applications for the next class will be accepted beginning in August.

Leadership Columbus alumni recently formed new committee, Columbus Young Professionals. This group is looking at ways for young professionals to network with the objective of keeping our best and brightest at home. They also plan to develop strategies to make our community more attractive for young professionals. Call the Columbus Chamber to find out more.

And there are other civic groups, like the Whiteville Junior Woman’s Club, that have been stalwarts of community building for decades.

The future of Columbus County looks brighter than the numbers project.

Thanks to efforts of past leaders, the table has been set for the county to grow. The industrial park west of Whiteville now has everything it needs to attract new industry. A second industrial park is in the early planning stages in the Delco area, and Tabor City’s industrial park is adjacent to one of the fastest-growing areas in the country.

But despite all that, nothing will happen unless there is strong leadership. Judging by the enthusiasm of the county’s young professional class, the ship’s rudder is in good shape.

The young leaders who attended the Columbus Jobs Foundation luncheon got to see an old photo of the Whiteville Rotary Club, taken in the late 1940s or early 1950s. There are easily 80 people crowded into the photo. Many are the leaders who helped propel Columbus County and Whiteville into an unparalleled period of prosperity, fueled by tobacco, textile and family-run retail shops and businesses.

The loss of these industries, plus the advent of big-box retailers and internet commerce, coupled with the Great Recession, badly hurt the local economy.

Even though there are still many challenges ahead, one gets the sense that there is a new air of optimism.

Looking back at the old Rotary Club photo reveals that there are new opportunities in 2016 because there are no women or minorities included, and not many young people.

It’s up to the old guard to empower the next generation of young leaders. We can begin by recognizing them through initiatives like The News Reporter’s “Fifteen Under 40.”

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