Isn't it about time to get realistic about rural areas?

Published July 2, 2020

By Joe Mavretic

After about forty years of "Rural Initiatives" and "Rural Economic Efforts" and "Rural Civic and Cultural Programs" and "Five Year Plans" and "Tier 1" gibberish, nearly all of our forty most-distressed counties are still steadily going downhill. Forty counties populated with people having poor health, marginal educations, poverty incomes and troubled families. It doesn’t make much difference whether you compare incomes, education levels, population shifts, median ages, health statistics, jobs availability or labor participation rates, these forty counties are the bottom of the heap in North Carolina and that’s not going to change much for another fifty years unless we get smarter.
If you want to see a clear picture of North Carolina’s rural future, pull up the last Tour de France bicycle race on your TV and take a hard look at the French countryside…that’s where we’re headed….a mosaic of very small farms that produce specialty items for nearby towns/cities, a few huge agricultural operations, some power generators, a few "Work-at-home families," and probably some waste disposal sites.
Many of today’s towns with populations under a thousand will go belly-up by 2050 because their tax base will not support the public responsibilities in their charters. 
Several eastern and western counties should be forced to merge because their individual revenues will not be adequate for schools, public and social services, and law enforcement. 
Don’t think that our General Assemblies are going to be overly sympathetic to rural needs when major urban issues need attention. Currently, our nine largest cities have over 25% of the state’s population and our nine largest counties have over 46% of the state’s population. The 2020 census, and the required 2021 redistricting, will put a majority of the votes in both our House of Representatives and Senate in urban-leaning districts. The Federal Government and U.S. Supreme Court have taken away our constitutional capacity to balance our legislature. Where is the light at the end of this tunnel? It is the "nature fix" combined with tourism.
One of the responses to the current virus will be a move to rural areas by some on-line employees who are afraid of epidemics and terrorism in our cities. Another is an emerging combination called "tourofarms" where city dwellers who want to"Get-Away" will pay to vacation milking cows, feeding hogs, gathering eggs and canning vegetables. Our drowned coastal plain will offer an extraordinary array of campsites, hiking trails, fishing streams, and hunting lodges. The "ecotourist" infrastructure will require thousands of employees who can live on marginal incomes in our poorer counties. One industry that will expand is aquaculture. As our eastern rivers and sounds change, and we get smarter about our western creeks and rivers, North Carolina’s potential for water products and activities will explode! 
What are some signs that will show up on the way to changes in rural North Carolina? Start watching for oysters that are raised in baskets instead of muddy bottom reefs. Pay attention to premium cheeses, wines and meats from rural counties. Observe the growth of farm-to-home fruit and vegetable deliveries. Read about rustic/rural/farm NC vacations in Our State Magazine. Pay attention to new trails and lodges in eastern and western NC. Watch the changing curriculum in rural counties’ community colleges and at NCSU. 
North Carolina can handle the inevitable Urban-Rural divide if we are smart enough to take advantage of our natural resources, geology, and changing life-styles. What will get in the way are demands and lawsuits that scream for equity among our regions when their differences require priorities.