To help small NC towns rebound, creativity needed

This editorial appeared in the Fayetteville Observer:

Not so long ago, North Carolina was the nation’s most industrialized state. But while other states created mega-cities as hubs of manufacturing, this state built many small towns around factories.

Textiles were king in those towns. But with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, the industry changed. NAFTA opened foreign markets to American goods, while supplying U.S. discount retailers with cheap products.

But it also provided access to laborers working well below the U.S. minimum wage. That made it difficult for textile manufacturers to compete if they weren’t willing to move most operations away from the United States. Large numbers did that. Others went broke trying to retain their American work force.

The small towns are mostly still here. The jobs are mostly gone. Each town has a different story, but the pattern is clear. Some have had marginal success with drawing new industries. But it can be a shell game, as Red Springs found when loss of a contract created need for another replacement.

Other communities are evolving. Several Harnett communities are seeing population growth and a second life as bedroom communities for Wake and Cumberland commuters. But that model does little for the tax base to support local services. Local leaders would like more options.

Rep. David Lewis offers some ideas that hold promise: “We’re going to put a renewed focus on making sure that our rural communities have the infrastructure they need, the water, the sewer, the streets. And frankly, the connectivity.”

He’s calling for regional coordination between small towns, with efforts from the state to create favorable conditions.

In addition to those ideas, community college engagement is essential. Education officials need to ensure that each school has a vision for partnering with local governments, industries and economic developers to train workers in the skills needed for today’s high-tech jobs.

The textile-based economy just isn’t coming back in any recognizable form. That reality is difficult for those who grew up in those towns. Accepting it and seeking new answers is the first step toward building a prosperous future.

Tribune Content Agency