Nearly 350 rural North Carolina leaders participated recently in a series of regional advocacy roundtables conducted by the N.C. Rural Center. The six-community rural tour marked the starting point in the center’s implementation of an advocacy process that will result in a statewide policy agenda for rural North Carolina.
The framework for these meetings was simple: Rural North Carolina talked. We listened.
Although specific concerns varied by region, the overarching theme of each meeting was the same. Participants repeatedly expressed concern that the state’s economic recovery is leaving rural communities further and further behind. The data only reinforces those worries.
— From June 2010 to June 2015, employment growth reached 18 percent in North Carolina’s six most prosperous urban counties. As a group, our 80 rural counties experienced only a 4 percent increase.
— Even that modest gain was not shared equally. Ten rural counties accounted for 60 percent of the job growth; 26 counties experienced a net employment loss.
The rural leaders we spoke with are concerned that state policy doesn’t fully address this disparity. Within the broad theme of North Carolina’s uneven economic recovery, six fundamental policy issues emerged from our meetings in Franklin, Troy, Lenoir, Henderson, Clinton and Williamston:
1. Workforce development and education From pre-school through college, and with programs that help re-tool workers throughout their careers, rural North Carolina needs public policy that invests in every student and worker. Students of all ages must have access to a quality education regardless of geography, and be matched with the demands of the job market.
2. Partnership and collaboration Rural leaders recognize the vital importance of strong local and regional partnerships and collaboration, but they also believe that public policy has not invested enough in these essential ingredients of economic development. A number of regionally focused economic development organizations have closed in recent years, which is particularly distressing.
3. Rural health By any measure, rural North Carolinians are less healthy than their urban and suburban counterparts. A more robust health care system is essential to the future of rural North Carolina, and as a growing job sector, the medical field provides a multitude of career opportunities. Public policy should aim to improve care for rural residents, which in turn will create jobs.
4. Funding availability and accessibility Local leaders understand that each community must do its part in investing in improved infrastructure, better public schools and community amenities that attract and enhance lives in rural towns and counties. Yet, they need funding partners at the state, federal and philanthropic levels with accessible programs and reliable, flexible and understandable funding commitments.
5. Small business and entrepreneurship Jobs are created in three ways: by starting new businesses from scratch, by growing opportunities at established companies, and by attracting outside businesses to relocate. Rural leaders recognize that strong business- retention and entrepreneurship programs are the most sure-fire way to grow jobs, but understand that state incentives to entice business relocations are important as well. Participants felt the lack of state policy consensus around these issues has hurt their job- creation efforts.
6. Infrastructure Attendees emphasized that rural economic development cannot happen without a strong infrastructure system, including: good roads, clean water, efficient wastewater systems, accessible natural gas, navigable ports and modern rail. In particular, participants advocated for widely available and affordable broadband, a prospect that would require an investment similar to that which rural America received 80 years ago via rural electrification. Broadband is absolutely that important — 21st-century businesses cannot operate without it.
The center will bring increased focus and attention to these rural issues with the 2015 N.C. Rural Assembly, “Cultivating Connectivity: Leveraging Broadband to Accelerate Opportunity.” The Assembly, which will be held in the Triangle on September 28-29, will be the largest gathering of rural North Carolina leaders held this year.
With help from a number of partners, the center has assembled state and national leaders from the public and private sectors to address our unique audience on the latest developments, best practices and greatest challenges for ensuring rural-wide broadband connectivity. We hope rural leaders and our urban friends from Murphy to Manteo and Asheville to Wilmington will join us for a vital conversation that matters to us all.
The Rural Center believes effective public policy should be good for all 100 counties in our state. This will require policy that embraces different economic development paths for different regions. Rural North Carolina alone will require multiple approaches based on regional realities on the ground. This will ensure we remain the state “where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great.” We should all expect and accept no less.
Increasingly, elected members of both parties in all parts of North Carolina acknowledge the disparity in our state’s economic recovery. Rural North Carolina welcomes the fact that everyone is starting to pay attention. But acknowledging the issue is only the beginning.
Now it’s time to get to work.
Based in Raleigh, The N.C. Rural Center is a private nonprofit with a mission to develop, promote and implement sound economic strategies to improve the quality of life of rural North Carolinians. Patrick Woodie is president of the organization, which serves the state’s 80 rural counties, with a special focus on individuals with low to moderate incomes and communities with limited resources. For more information, please see www.ncruralcenter.org.