NC's rural-urban divide reveals 'classic tale of two Carolinas' at N&O forum

Grover Lewter drives his red Massey-Harris "44 Special" tractor past new apartments at Carpenter Village on Morrisville-Carpenter Road in 2003.
Grover Lewter drives his red Massey-Harris "44 Special" tractor past new apartments at Carpenter Village on Morrisville-Carpenter Road in 2003. ssharpe@newsobserver.com

By many accounts, North Carolina is a prospering state.

It's been in the running for an Amazon second headquarters and its urban areas are among the fastest growing in the country.

But in rural North Carolina, which is most of the state — 80 of its 100 counties — there is a different narrative. Many counties are losing population; job growth is flat or on the decline and they are struggling with such basic needs as access to health care and the Internet in a fast-moving digital age.

That divided story was the subject of The News & Observer's Community Voices forum on Wednesday. Nearly 200 people were at the NC Museum of History to discuss "Bridging North Carolina''s urban-rural divide."

During a 90-minute discussion, four panelists with varied views of North Carolina's rural areas talked about why some counties are losing population and how to slow the exodus, as well as entice employers and newcomers to invest in struggling towns and counties.

The panelists agreed that ignoring the challenges of rural North Carolina, such as easy access to high-speed internet, health care, higher education and a diversity of jobs, will hamper the long-term prosperity of the state.

Ned Barnett, The News & Observer's associate opinion and solutions editor, noted that despite North Carolina's success in urban areas it's still largely a rural state. Citing Rebecca Tippett, the founding director of the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, Barnett said North Carolina is a state of "persistent rurality," a place of rural reaches and small farms.

A 1995 photo shows William Henry Parker as recollects about when Highway 17 (background) was the main route from New York to Florida before the construction of I-95. Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com

Tippett reported that among the 10 most populous states, North Carolina has the largest proportion of individuals living in rural areas. Its rural population is larger than in any other state except for Texas.

But as North Carolina's population is increasingly concentrated in the state's urban areas — a crescent-shaped corridor that stretches from Charlotte through the Triad of Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point to the Triangle — 48 NC counties have lost population since the 2010 Census. Most are in rural areas.

Nearly half of the state's growth since 2010 has occurred in just two counties, Wake and Mecklenburg.

"So we have a classic tale of two Carolinas., one flourishing, one languishing," Barnett said.

"It is not a new problem. Many state efforts have tried to bridge the urban-rural divide," Barnett said. "But as the difference becomes more stark, the problem becomes more urgent. If a house divided cannot stand, neither can a state. Allowing the divide to grow is fracturing our politics, weakening our economy and diminishing our identity as a state rich not only in urban wealth, but in open land and agricultural resources. "

A farmer uses a tractor to move large bales of hay to feed his cattle in pastures along Cornwallis Road in Johnston County. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

The two Carolinas have exposed a need for new economic models in rural areas and bold ideas for how to bring internet and broadband access to communities that are great distances from each other, the panelists said. They talked about a strong need for better health care on the ground and through other options such as telemedicine. They suggested more farming options — such as organic farms and introducing other crops to replace a longtime reliance on tobacco.

Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat who represents eight rural counties in the northeastern corner of the state, had this to say about why urban residents should care about the trials of rural regions.

"We're only as strong as our weakest community," Smith said.

Protesters hold signs at a rally held by Belhaven Mayor Adam O'Neal after he completed his walk all the way from Belhaven to the N.C. legislature in Raleigh to protest the closing of a local hospital in his town. Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

In a city where residents and visitors have free Wi-Fi downtown, Smith offered a different portrait of northeastern NC, where school children do homework outside McDonald's restaurants to access the Internet they cannot get to at home. She spoke of young people leaving home for college degrees and not returning to enrich the region with their new knowledge because of a lack of employment opportunities.

The others on the panel with Smith included:

Rochelle Sparko, a lawyer, policy director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and an advocate for fair farm and food policies who helps build connections between small farmers and urban customers.

Dr. Robert Bashford, head of the UNC School of Medicine’s newly created Office of Rural Initiatives. Part of his job is working to recruit, train and mentor the next generation of physicians committed to practicing in rural parts of North Carolina

Patrick Woodie, president and CEO of the NC Rural Center, a 31-year-old organization that works to improve the quality of life for the state's 80 rural counties..

“We believe strongly rural and urban communities are interconnected," Woodie said.

Sparko, who maintains Darko Urban Farm in Durham, touted the advantages of encouraging commerce between small farmers and city consume.

It's important, Sparko said, for there to be diversity and a connection between urban residents who like locally sourced and organic foods and the farmers who have the land to grow them.

Bashford said "health literacy" was one idea that would go a great distance to bridging the divide.

Woodie, though, cautioned about making blanket characterizations of the rural areas as struggling and blighted and urban areas as beacons of boom and prosperity. Some rural areas are doing well, he said. Urban areas have their problems, too, such as poverty and growth pressures.

The rural areas don't only need to recruit new businesses, Woodie said — programs should support the ones already there.

“There is no one thing that solves all our problems," Woodie said.

But forums and efforts to bridge the divide together, the panelists said, can go a long way.

“A single point of connection, a bridge, is not enough.," Sparko said. "We need a complex network of connections."