The best example of the urban-rural divide in North Carolina may be HB2, the now-infamous “bathroom law” wherein Republican lawmakers did away with a Charlotte City Council ordinance protecting rights of transgender people to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. The same law also effectively prohibited local governments — that really meant cities — from passing anti-discrimination laws of their own to safeguard those in the LGBT community.
It’s a bad law that has cost the state thousands of jobs and millions of dollars, so far, because of concerns that it defines North Carolina as an intolerant state.
Beyond that, however, as The Charlotte Observer reports, HB2 is one example of a growing urban-rural divide in this state that if, should it grow wider, will hurt all citizens.
Rural legislators rule the roost in the General Assembly. House Speaker Tim Moore is from Cleveland County, in the foothills, where population is diminishing, and the same is true of Rockingham County, home of Phil Berger, the president pro-tem of the state Senate. “City” legislators are simply outnumbered as well, and those in power from the rural counties have enjoyed flexing their muscle, from HB2 to debates over shifting sales tax revenue from the cities to rural counties, to considering trying to take away Charlotte’s airport to redrawing voting districts in Wake and Guilford counties to give the GOP a better advantage at local control.
Rural-urban tension is nothing new, hard-right ideology on the part of some rural leaders makes it worse. And cities such as Charlotte and Raleigh have enjoyed growing economies and new businesses in the past couple of decades, as the textile industries and other small manufacturers have left smaller, less-populous counties. That’s created resentment, and understandably so. GOP lawmakers also cut funding for the Rural Economic Development Center, which they believed was a Democratic boondoggle.
Allowing the divide to grow, however, is going to be bad for everyone. The rural counties won’t really benefit, and will continue to shrink. The urban areas, if penalized for their prosperity, will lose jobs and begin a downturn of their own.
Despite the attitude on the part of rural legislative leaders, those from urban areas, along with big-city mayors, need to take on this issue. It won’t be easy. But Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer may have said it best in suggesting that urban leaders find common ground with those from rural areas.
“To me the job of an urban area is to provide a platform for a robust economy that serves the whole state,” she said. “So we need to help explain that a win for rural is a win for urban and a win for urban is a win for rural.” That’s it exactly.
Big companies that do international and national business need modern transportation and easy access to airports. That’s going to draw them to cities.
But many of those businesses have service centers — call centers, for example — that don’t necessarily have to be in a city. Those should be opportunities for smaller communities.
The state’s recruiters, in other words, need to think beyond the concept of getting a business to come to Charlotte or Raleigh, provide X number of jobs, and everyone lives happily ever after. The state can seek those smaller businesses that might better fit smaller towns and counties. Those smaller towns can partner with larger ones, working together.
Consider Shelby or Kings Mountain, two towns in Speaker Moore’s territory. They’re less than an hour from Charlotte. There should be a way to make Charlotte’s success their success. Both have ample land, and are scenic, sound communities. (Shelby has long called itself “the city of pleasant living.”)
Likewise, those rural legislators who view the cities as enemies need to talk with people like Manheimer and other mayors to generate ideas about working together and not constantly being at odds. At best that kind of stalemate means cities are starved for some resources and rural areas ... well, they don’t benefit at all.
There need be no urban-rural divide. There needs to be an urban-rural partnership, with all moving forward together.