The Editors' Blog

Metros dominate NC economy

North Carolina is a vast state, nearly 54,000 square miles from Manteo to Murphy. But most of its economy is jammed into a handful of metropolitan cities and counties, like Raleigh. The seven largest metro areas generate nearly 70 percent of the state’s economy, according to data recently released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

The mayors put out the report, called U.S. Metro Economies, to make the point that the country’s urban areas are the engines of the nation’s economy, and thus should be getting more love from Washington.

The breakdown in North Carolina shows that the Charlotte metropolitan area is responsible for 25.5 percent of the state’s economy. Raleigh-Cary (13.5 percent) and Durham (8.7 percent) metro areas generate a total of 22.2 percent. I combined them because they make up the Triangle, and it makes more sense to treat them as a single economic entity. So right there, the Triangle and Charlotte are nearly half the state’s economy.

The Triad weighs in at 13.1 percent (Greensboro, 8.1) and Winston-Salem (5.0); Fayetteville has 4.1 percent, and Wilmington has 3.4.

These are dry stats but they highlight why there is always some tension in the state’s economic development strategy. It is easier for North Carolina to recruit out-of-state companies to come to urban areas because that’s where most people want to live. Companies seeking to relocate either want to be able to convince their most valued employees to relocate with them, or they want to be able to easily hire educated and skilled new workers. It is easier to do these two things if you relocate to a place like Charlotte or Raleigh. So the rich (the metro areas) get richer, and their share of the gross state product goes up.

But politicans also like to give lip service to helping the rural areas, which have suffered from massive manufacturing plant closings and have disproportionately large numbers of poor and less-educated residents. It is hard to recruit companies with good-paying jobs to these areas.

One obvious solution is and always has been education. Theoretically, if a rural county became known for having an extraordinarily well-trained workforce of community college graduates who were fine staying at home, as opposed to going off to UNC or N.C. State and then settling in Cary, that might make a difference. In other words, if you train them and they stay in Duplin County, the biotech companies will come.

But first you’d have to give these rural students a really, really solid foundation from K through 12, and that’s a challenge that has been discussed in Judge Howard Manning’s courtroom for years.