The most important question that should be asked of every office-seeker in North Carolina this election season is, “What is your economic development vision for our state – rural and urban?”
The Metro Mayors Coalition has spent 15 years discussing this topic and others. Mayors know that economic development in our state is not a zero sum game in which urban areas benefit at the expense of rural areas, or vice versa.
Ted Abernathy, an economic development consultant, recently spoke to the state legislature about the urban-rural divide in North Carolina. His chart of the income inequality among the average incomes in our state’s 100 counties importantly drew attention to the challenges in our state’s rural communities. But such indexes, rankings and maps gloss over the hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians living within the five counties with above-average incomes but who are making far lower wages than the state average.
Metro mayors have spent countless hours over the past two years talking about how to offer a vision of inclusive economic development for our whole state grounded in advancing all parts of our state – rural and urban.
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The mayors recognize that economies operate in regions. Businesses don’t care about city, county or state borders. If a business locates in the town next door or the county next door, that is a win for everyone in the region.
Our state’s Commerce Department should play a key role along with economic development consultants in supporting the development of each regional plan. They can offer research, expertise and guidance as the chambers of commerce, local elected officials, nonprofits and community leaders determine their own future. The plans should identify the economic competition for each region, anywhere on the planet, and a clear assessment of the region’s unique assets. Everyone loves a good football metaphor: If we are going to beat the competition, we need to study the tapes.
The exercise of identifying each region’s competition will begin to move the focus off one another and onto a framework where we can support everyone’s economic development plans. When compared with your peers, what should your transportation system look like? When compared with your peers, what should your educational attainment level be? When compared with your peers, what should your average income be? From this, each region can lay out goals and specific plans. They can identify where their weaknesses are and develop a list of projects for funding.
Mayors know better than anyone that the role of government in economic development is in infrastructure investment. Government investment moves people and goods, water and sewerage, energy and electronic commerce. These are the keys to a strong economic vision for our state. And the keys to this vision don’t come cheap. A bold vision requires a bold investment. And the proper place for such bold investment is with state tax dollars.
The role for the state in this vision is as a partner both in technical expertise but also in funding. The state should establish two funds, one for projects that any region can compete for, urban and rural, and another limited to only rural regions. Key to this vision is the competition for resources that will ensure only those plans with the best chance of succeeding secure funding. There should be a technical panel of experts who develop the scoring criteria and rank the projects to ensure that the funds don’t end up going just to the politically powerful. It is imperative that the public trust that we are not building any roads to nowhere or advancing pork projects.
This vision offers a path for all toward prosperity. It moves beyond the idea that economic development is a zero sum game and recognizes our current economic realities. We are all in a competition every day with other cities, counties, states and countries for job creation, but we are also all on the same team. Through this vision, we can support one another as we move forward together. We can be one North Carolina only when the vision for our future is all inclusive and represents the best for all of us.
Esther Manheimer is mayor of Asheville. Chuck Travis is mayor of Cornelius.