The N.C. Rural Economic Development Center is making a comeback so that rural North Carolina might do the same.
Three years ago, the nonprofit agency was blasted by a critical state audit and a News & Observer series for its president’s high pay and its poor oversight of state grant money. State lawmakers responded by cutting off state funding that in most years ranged from $20 million to $24 million.
The Rural Center was knocked down, but not out. It has cut staff from 54 to 20, regrouped around funding from federal and private sources and refocused on strengthening the economies in North Carolina’s rural counties – 80 of its 100. The agency spent nine months assessing and surveying the needs of rural counties that included a series of six regional meetings. Now it’s pushing a 10-point plan for answering those needs. The plan will be discussed at six more regional meetings across the state this month.
The strategies include developing a better trained local workforce, making health care more available, improving the planning and development expertise of local governments, expanding fiber-optic broadband and addressing neglected infrastructure needs, especially water systems that are leaking millions of gallons of treated water.
The push is desperately needed. While North Carolina’s economy has mostly recovered from the Great Recession, gains in population and jobs have been concentrated in urban and suburban counties. Most of rural North Carolina remains mired in the recession.
“This is a state that is not advancing together,” says Jason Gray, a senior fellow at the center, who visited The News & Observer on Thursday, along with center president Patrick Woodie.
Woodie stresses that closing the gap between rural and urban North Carolina is not about seeing them as two separate North Carolinas, rather it’s about seeing the connections. He notes that 122,000 rural residents commute daily to jobs in urban counties while 90,000 urban county residents go to work in rural counties. Economic development shouldn’t pit rural against urban, he says, it should strengthen the ties between them.
Unfortunately, state lawmakers are talking in terms of taking from booming urban areas to help struggling rural counties. The state sales tax was recently adjusted to send more proceeds in that direction, straining urban budgets to increase rural revenue. The better approach, Woodie says, are strategies that will allow both sides to prosper. “I don’t think North Carolina succeeds when we have a conversation about winners and losers,” he says.
The Rural Center’s resurgence may be able to change an approach by a legislature that is sympathetic to rural needs, but that has done little to alleviate the underlying economic problems. It has refused Medicaid expansion, which would improve the health of the working poor in rural areas and create health care jobs in rural hospitals. And tight spending on public schools hurts rural school systems that are major employers and holds back the development of an educated workforce.
Meanwhile, a move that cut state funding for regional economic development operations in favor of one centralized in Raleigh has been slow to bear fruit. Most economic development remains focused on creating opportunities for ribbon-cuttings rather than building economic fundamentals – good schools, solid infrastructure, high speed Internet and support for entrepreneurship and small businesses.
The N.C. Rural Center, improved by its own internal scrutiny, is now trying to get North Carolina to look anew at what is hobbling rural counties and how to get them up and running with the rest of the state. It’s a noble and and urgent mission.