Gov. Roy Cooper says not enough is being done to help rural N.C. counties build roads, expand high-speed internet, train people in job skills and find other ways to improve the economy. So he has launched an initiative to make that happen much faster.
North Carolina remains a rural state with 80 of its 100 counties struggling for a piece of the prosperity found in the booming urban and suburban counties. The urban-rural divide has long been a problem in North Carolina and numerous efforts over decades have been launched — both by private organizations and public agencies — to tackle the issue.
Cooper’s program, called Hometown Strong, is meant to cut through the bureaucracies with a small team that will help rural counties track down funding from state, federal and nonprofit sources. The team, so far just two people, will offer expertise on what projects are needed and can reasonably be attained, and help with paperwork and staffing.
Most important, Hometown Strong is meant to make it clear that improving rural economic development is a priority for his administration. Cooper has instructed the team to draw on all of the resources available from executive branch agencies under the auspices of the governor. Those include commerce, military affairs, information technology and transportation.
Cooper says he’s driven by his roots growing up, raising a family and working as a lawyer in Nash County.
“State government needs to do more than talk about the rural-urban divide, we need to do something about it,” Cooper said in a recent interview with The News & Observer. “This is personal to me.”
The governor said when he selected his Cabinet after winning office in 2016, he considered where they grew up. The majority of the Cabinet, along with his chief of staff and state budget director, were raised in rural North Carolina. Then Cooper instructed Cabinet members to come up with their best ideas on how to improve the quality of life for those in economically distressed areas.
“The intent was not to create new programs, not to ask for more appropriations, but identify what we already have,” said Susi Hamilton, secretary of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
A working group delved into those ideas and formed the marching orders for the new team.
Cooper reached into the ranks of trusted advisers and fellow Democrats with state government experience to run the initiative: Pryor Gibson, a former state representative from Anson County and lobbyist for former Gov. Bev Perdue, and Mary Penny Kelley, who has worked as legal counsel in Cooper’s justice department and in the state environmental agencies.
Gibson, an animated politician who has been a general contractor, real estate agent, insurance broker and recently executive vice president with the N.C. Forestry Association, will be the director and public face of the program. Kelley is a longtime environmentalist who was practicing law in Nash County when she got the call from the governor. Gibson will be paid $148,000 annually and Kelley $110,250.
“I’ve been around a lot of bureaucracies over a lot of years,” Gibson said in an interview this week. “This is 180 degrees away from bureaucracy. It’s anti-bureaucracy.”
Partly, the goal is to make sure that efforts aren’t being duplicated. Gibson said he is not finding evidence of that, but is finding that communication among the counties and organizations could be better.
Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Republican from Union County, however, ticked off the list of agencies and programs that leave the business community is confused: the Economic Development Partnership of N.C., the Department of Commerce, the Department of Environmental Quality, the N.C. Rural Center, decentralized regions for more local collaboration, county economic developers, planners.
“How do you dice it down to get something done instead of planning?” Tucker said.
Legislators also are concerned about rural counties getting shortchanged when it to comes to state incentive grants. A joint House and Senate committee is working on rewriting the state’s economic development incentives programs because the current tier system – designed to steer funding to the counties that need the most help – isn’t working. That’s often because large companies choose to locate in urban centers that have amenities that many rural areas of the state do not.
Kelley said the new team will look at proposed projects in three ways: those that just need a push to complete, those that require intense negotiations among agencies to resolve, and longer-term proposals that could be started now.
“The emphasis is on action,” Kelley said in the same interview, “not new studies, new forms. We’re just going to make it move.”
Some of those projects would improve high-speed internet, rebuild downtowns, provide infrastructure, make small business loans, develop the workforce and apply for state financial incentives to attract industry, Cooper said.
The initiative will begin with a handful of counties, to be announced this spring, to test the approach. The team will only go into counties that want them.
In return, counties that go through the process must agree to share their experiences with subsequent counties to let them know what works or doesn’t.
Why rural counties matter
An analysis done Wednesday by the N.C. Rural Center shows that 86 percent of the employment growth in the state between November 2016 and November 2017 occurred in the Triangle and Charlotte regions. It found six core urban counties increased in employment compared with the previous November by 2 percent (a gain of 28,625 people employed), 14 regional city or suburban counties increased by 1 percent (10,273 employed) and the 80 rural counties increased by only 0.2 percent (3,012 employed).
Some rural counties are doing better than others, but 45 of the counties had employment declines, some substantial. Those declines taken together dragged down the overall totals for rural North Carolina.
Stuart Gilbert, economic development director for Person County, said the state stepping in to help coordinate efforts would be welcomed. But counties shouldn’t expect the state to come through with all the resources, he said.
“Rural counties can’t blame the state. They have to work with elected leaders and economic development leaders to figure how to make things happen,” Gilbert said. “Creative counties will move forward. Others looking for a free handout will fall behind.”
Person County, with a population of 40,000, has on its own approved a 52-mile fiber backbone to improve wireless communications, and has developed the state’s latest “megasite” to attract large manufacturing operations.
Down east, Greene County is trailing some of its rural neighbors. The county has a part-time economic development director and many needs. The county has only a few four-lane highways, which are critical to luring businesses.
The county also needs training for potential workers and, especially, broadband internet service, said Rick Davis, the director. The state stepping in would be helpful, he said.
“The state can have all the programs in the world, but if the local government entity isn’t positioned to take advantage of it, know who to call and when to call, and even which things are more important than others, they might pursue a project that shouldn’t be at the top of their list,” Davis said.
Greene County’s dwindling population of 21,000 doesn’t generate a lot of revenue. It will take more than tax increases to build the components needed to attract business, Davis said.
“You can’t let any county just fall behind,” he said. “Eventually, it will catch up with everybody. If Greene County can’t sustain itself, government somewhere else is going to have to sustain it. It’s in Raleigh’s best interest to have Greene County vibrant and growing.”
Davis said he thinks that any county that has a well-justified project it would like to finance and has put together a good strategy to land it, would benefit from state assistance.
“There are people waiting and willing to help us if we’re willing to help ourselves,” he said. “Sometimes the rural counties don’t know how to help themselves.”