In rural North Carolina, rough economic realities

Rural North Carolina faces profound changes brought on by long-term economic trends and more recent policy decisions by the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory. Regardless of whether one believes the policy changes are prudent or just civic vandalism, a new way forward must be found.

First, we must acknowledge and act on three new realities generally not appreciated and perhaps not welcomed.

1 North Carolina is a metropolitan state with significant rural and urban connections. North Carolina has the second-largest rural population in the nation, based on U.S. Census Bureau estimates. But rural North Carolina’s voice has been eclipsed by rapid suburban and urban growth mostly clustered in expansive metropolitan regions in a long arc from Charlotte through the Triad and east to the Triangle. As of 2010, 66 percent of the state’s population was urban and 34 percent rural. Rural North Carolina cannot meet its potential by ignoring the fundamental fact that we are no longer a rural state. While this is so, many rural and urban communities have a shared fate.

The shared fate is that 56 percent of the state’s rural population lives in metropolitan counties. Based on labor commuting patterns, there are 31 predominantly rural counties within metropolitan regions. Additional research would reveal even deeper economic connections that include not only obvious economic activity, but also recreational and environmental value of keen interest to urban residents (and where does the water for our major cities come from?). All North Carolinians need to better acknowledge and understand this connection that benefits everyone. Rural America cannot advance without urban allies.

2 Rural is remote from recovery. North Carolina’s slow economic recovery is grossly lopsided. To understand this requires looking at county level data, which is less precise than state or metropolitan level data. Still, using public data from the N.C. Department of Commerce, we can get a pretty good account of the imbalance. Twenty-four rural counties had a decline of 2 percent or more in the number of employed between August 2013 and August 2014. Ten rural counties had declines greater than 3 percent.

For the 31 North Carolina counties with employment growth, Wake and Mecklenburg alone accounted for 56 percent of the increase. Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker and McCrory are working just as hard as their Democratic predecessors to secure new business development opportunities. But the periodic news releases of progress in rural counties should not blind us to the reality that many rural counties are not benefiting from the slow recovery.

Recruitment and subsidization of out-of-state firms are an essential part of an economic development strategy for every state. But to over-rely on it, as North Carolina has historically done and continues to do, hasn’t been cutting edge since the 1980s. Creating high-paying jobs is like securing happiness – it is a product of doing other things. The more rural and economically distressed the county, the more everything has an economic impact: great schools and well-paid, high quality teachers; good roads and affordable broadband; quality housing and parks; a well-trained workforce. All work together to create high-quality rural communities.

3 The real infrastructure deficit.Rural North Carolina also needs to invest more in itself. At the end of the day, the only lasting development is self-development. Outside support is in many cases critical, but it is never sufficient. A growing number of rural communities nationally are linking homegrown community philanthropy to rural development solutions. This approach requires a commitment to civic effort and innovation. The greatest infrastructure deficit in rural North Carolina is not roads or water systems, important though they be. What is most needed is broadly inclusive leadership who understands what it takes to be a vibrant rural community in a metropolitan-dominated state and nation – rural leaders who can recognize and develop their own assets.

On Thursday, the newly reorganized North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center will hold its annual conference in Raleigh, now titled the North Carolina Rural Assembly, . This is an excellent time for leaders and advocates to take stock and plan for the future of rural North Carolina.

In an increasingly urban and suburban world, we all need to better appreciate the value of the rural life. The inherent worth of rural people, their struggle to find the right mix of adapting and conserving, will endure. The only question is whether policymakers, and urban and suburban North Carolina generally, will be partners worthy enough to be their equal.

Jason Leslie Gray of Cary is a former director of the Office of Research and Innovation at the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center.