What now for the Rural Center?

July 31, 2013 

The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center was for 25 years a valuable part of focusing on job creation and business recruitment in the neglected rural areas of North Carolina.

Clearly, as reports by The News & Observer’s J. Andrew Curliss demonstrated, the center may not have lost its way entirely, but it veered off the road some, with a board that established a handsome severance package for the founding president, Billy Ray Hall, and whose members sometimes had an interest in grants from the center for their own projects.

Confronted with N&O reports, followed by a critical audit from State Auditor Beth Wood, Republican lawmakers nixed further state funding for the center and Gov. Pat McCrory called for the resignations of Hall, who resigned, and board Chair Valeria Lee, who did not, initially. But Wednesday, Lee must have had a change of heart, and she did resign.

But with the likely abolition of the center, or a downsizing that’s likely to be the next thing to abolition, what’s to become of the effort to breathe some economic life into rural North Carolina? For that mission remains, or should, a priority.

In the urban areas of the state, from the Charlotte region to the Piedmont Triad to the Research Triangle, recruitment has gone slowly under McCrory, whose promised job creation has been decidedly less successful than was his campaign for governor. In those areas, however, there are convenient airports and urban amenities and infrastructure friendly to new industry. There is reason to hope.

Another world

But in the rural regions of the state, where the urban world is a good ride away, the recession was, has been and in some areas still is a depression. Double-digit unemployment is common.

Sharon Decker, secretary of the state Department of Commerce and one of the architects of a plan to privatize some types of economic development, has lived in rural regions with high unemployment. She is not, in other words, a lifetime bureaucrat speaking from on high. Decker voices a commitment to helping people in rural parts of the state.

But before she joins in the quick destruction of the Rural Center, as it’s come to be called, Decker needs to explore the center’s research, the existing requests for grants and to talk with some personnel who might be valuable in working with Commerce as it takes over the task of making short- and long-term plans for boosting the economy of far-flung areas in the East, West and Northern and Southern Piedmont regions of the state.

Outside the box

Many people in those counties with the highest unemployment have been without jobs for the long term. To answer the needs of places like Scotland County, in the south-central sandhills on the South Carolina border, Decker will understand that a long-term strategy focused on small and medium-sized businesses will be needed in addition to making a “big score” with a large industry.

The unemployment rate in Scotland is around 15 percent, with many people lacking education and training. The same is true in Decker’s county of Rutherford, in the foothills, a former heart of the state’s now-sinking textile industry. Unemployment there is around 12 percent.

Imagination and agility with regard to ideas for development, along with a willingness to invest public money, will be needed if McCrory is to fulfill his promise of job creation.

Before it went astray, and it did go astray, the Rural Center accomplished some of its goals. But the cause must not be forgotten and the rural areas of the state must be cast not as drags on economic development but as lands of opportunity.

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