North Carolina has a lot of local governments. To be exact, the state has 100 counties and 552 municipalities. North Carolina is one of only seven states with triple digits in the number of counties, with Texas taking the prize at 254. We’re 18th among states in the number of municipalities, but far below the record holder of Illinois, with 2,729.
Many of us identify with our nearest local government, particularly when it comes to the economy. For example, an out-of-state friend might ask you how the economy is doing in Greensboro. Or a traveler eating at a diner in Richmond County could ask some locals if businesses are hiring.
Politics and statistics also cause us to focus on county and city boundaries. Both entities have elected officials who are concerned about economic development in their jurisdictions. Also, many numbers and statistics are regularly released describing economic conditions in counties and cities.
But do local economies start and stop at county and municipal lines? Don’t many people who live in one city or county but work in another? And what about buying? Even if you’re a fan of “buying local,” does this mean you won’t hop over to the next county to visit a mall, shopping center or restaurant?
Economists observe all kinds of cross-county and cross-city transactions. This is why most economists don’t think a county or city is the best description of a local economy.
But then what is? While the possibilities are many, a system developed several decades ago by the U.S. Census Bureau seems – at least to me – to make considerable sense.
The Census has three categories of a local economy. The first is a metropolitan area (technically called a metropolitan statistical area). A metropolitan area has a core city of 50,000 or more people together with surrounding counties having a high degree of social and economic interaction with that city, such as commuting for jobs and buying.
The second local-economy category is a micropolitan area. This is a region having a core city of between 10,000 and 50,000 people and nearby counties with strong employment and buying ties.
The third category is termed rural because it has no core cities of 10,000 or more people. With no significant central place serving as a magnet, economic interactions are more limited in rural areas than in the metropolitan and micropolitan regions.
Based on these definitions, North Carolina has 15 metropolitan areas and 24 micropolitan areas. Also, three counties are associated with metropolitan areas outside the state. Brunswick County in the southeast is part of the Myrtle Beach metropolitan area, and Gates and Currituck counties in the northeast are components of the Virginia Beach/Norfolk metropolitan region.
A total of 26 counties in North Carolina are considered rural.
Do these categories for local economies make sense? As someone who has visited most regions of our state several times in my almost 40-year career at N.C. State University, I would say yes. For example, driving around the Raleigh metropolitan area where I live, the counties of Johnston, Wake and Franklin – which make up the Raleigh metro area – certainly seem to be tied together.
Likewise, the two counties of the the Sanford micropolitan area – Lee and Harnett – appear to be joined in commerce. And the down-east counties of Sampson, Duplin, Bladen and Columbus – which are neither in a metropolitan or micropolitan category – seem to represent the tradition of what is considered to be rural North Carolina.
There are numerous private and public implications of thinking about local economies in this way. Advertisers and transportation planners can use them to understand how and where people shop. Business recruiters – who are often county-based – can use the categories to estimate how a new business in one county or city might affect nearby counties and cities.
I don’t think many of us will give up emotional allegiances to our home county or city. I know I haven’t. But economic linkages change over time. The geographic region best describing current local economies can be quite different from those existing decades ago.
Still, is anyone going to say they’re from the Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton Statistical Area, instead of simply Catawba County? You decide.
Walden is a professor and Extension economist in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at N.C. State University.