We – as a country and as a state – are inundated with narratives of division with constant reminders of our differences and our conflicts. Much of the country is still reeling from one of the most divisive elections in our history, and much of the current political rhetoric pits “us” against “them.”
Across our state and nation, one particular narrative has gained a stubborn foothold: the narrative of the rural-urban divide.
While that rhetoric may be politically expedient, it is not productive for our state as a whole. Our organizations – the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition and The Rural Center – understand that our rural communities are not competing against our cities. In reality, our fortunes are inextricably linked.
We cannot afford to have winners and losers as we work to secure a bright future for our entire state.
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For North Carolina to be successful – for any of our communities to be successful – we have to work together across rural and urban lines. We have to support policies that create jobs and opportunity in all parts of our state. And our legislators and policy leaders need to embrace specific strategies to accomplish that goal. As a state, we cannot be afraid to innovate, to step outside our boxes or to reach out to the “other side.”
In short, it is time to throw out the divisive talking points about the rural-urban divide and get down to work, because we have more in common than we generally recognize. Shifting resources from one pot to another is not going to cut it. We need to make the pot bigger and allocate more strategically. We need to acknowledge that communities starved for resources inevitably fight with one another.
As a state, we need to focus on how urban and rural communities are linked as economic regions, as evidenced by our economic hubs and their commuting patterns. In this new economy, city limits and county lines blur. New jobs anywhere in the region are a win for everyone as the employees to fill those jobs will come from throughout the region.
The Rural Center identifies 26 rural counties that are part of North Carolina’s metropolitan regions. Those 26 counties account for more than 1.8 million rural people, nearly 46 percent of our state’s total rural population. We must learn to appreciate the shared economic fate of our rural and urban counties.
We need to invest in the infrastructure – roads, rail, water and broadband – needed to make those regions successful. We need to understand the interconnected nature of our rural and urban communities, and acknowledge that improved health care and access to quality education for one resident pays dividends for us all.
We need to celebrate how each region’s unique assets make our state better and at the same time fearlessly address the weaknesses that keep them from achieving their full potential. That’s how we will accelerate job creation, attraction and retention, and create an economy that works for all of us.
We understand this. We have heard it in our large metro centers and in our small towns. It is what we see in communities across the state every day. It is why we – the mayor of Asheville and chair of an organization representing the more than three and a half million people who live in our state’s largest cities, along with the chair of the organization that serves 80 rural counties – have pledged to work together closely on policy issues, and especially on economic development, and focus on building bridges between urban and rural.
Many of our legislators already understand this, and we are thankful for their support. House Speaker Tim Moore said on opening day of the 2017 legislative session that we need policies that allow cities to prosper but bring rural areas along as well. He is right – we need to change our thinking and our priorities.
Join with us and let’s get to work charting an economic pathway that works for all of us. Let’s be bold, be innovative, be creative. Let’s lift up all our communities and leave behind the rhetoric of “us” versus “them.” It is how we will succeed and how we will unite North Carolina for generations to come.
Esther Manheimer is the mayor of Asheville and chairwoman of The North Carolina Metropolitan Mayors Coalition. Grant Godwin is chairman of The North Carolina Rural Center