01/23/09 — Report says divisiveness is hurting Duplin image

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Report says divisiveness is hurting Duplin image

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on January 23, 2009 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- An independent report conducted by a member of the Kenan School of Business at the University of Chapel Hill says Duplin County is not presenting a positive image on the Internet.

Dr. James H. Johnson, who was asked by state Sen. Charlie Albertson to do the study unbeknownst to county officials, urged the 100 people attending a meeting at which the report was revealed: "Don't shoot the messenger."

"It is a very sobering report," Albertson said. "We've got to do better than this, and there's no reason we can't. Changes need to be made. We're failing. We're not promoting our county. We've become stale."

Johnson said he conducted his research strictly by visiting Internet sites -- the same way many businesses conduct their initial search for a new location, he said.

"With the power of the Internet, there's not much I can't learn about you," he told the gathering at Duplin Commons. "I can tell you who gets along and who doesn't. And I can tell you who's been doing what they ought not do."

Duplin's image is that of a county whose leaders are constantly bickering, whose school system is failing and whose governmental components are not always working toward the same goals, he said.

"We are in a global war for economic development," Johnson said, noting that companies are looking to cull out locations with problems. "We are competing with communities that will do the work we are doing at one fifth the cost."

One of Duplin's problems, he said, is that its Web sites are inconsistent with one another. Some are inaccurate and outdated. And they are all hard to navigate, he said.

"You need a seamless web of connections that make it easy for people to find information. The county Web site has demographic information from 2000. The most competitive communities update their Web sites on a daily basis."

He said news stories posted on the Internet told him about the infighting that has been going on between the county and the public school system over money.

The Duplin County Board of Education sued the county last year for more money and a jury ordered the county to pay more. The decision is under appeal.

And the schools are not doing a good job of educating students, he said, citing end of grade tests that showed two-thirds of the school students in Duplin County can't read or do math at their grade level.

"That's a bankrupt system," he said. ... "Only 44 percent of your kids take the SAT, and you scores are more than 100 points below the state average."

He said from what he could see from the outside looking in, the school system has talented teachers and principals, but the leadership needs to be "broader thinking" to better mobilize them and make use of their talents.

Despite the negative reviews, the county can turn things around, Johnson said. He suggested revamping the county's Web site immediately. And he said the school board and county commissioners need to truly collaborate and stop the long-term standoff that is hurting Duplin's image. And he said the communities, which now demonstrate jealousies toward each other, need to work more closely with officials in their surrounding communities.

"You need a regional perspective. Everybody's cash register is going to go cha-ching when you all collaborate. You compete when you have to. You collaborate when it makes a lot of sense. And part of working on these Web sites and building the links will help you understand that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

At the end of his report, Johnson received a standing ovation from the crowd.