Nobody has the rural solution

Published December 6, 2013

By Tom Campbell

by Tom Campbell, Executive Producer and Moderator, NC SPIN, December 6, 2013.

As one who was born and raised in Eastern Carolina I hate to see what is happening to this rural region. Many voice concerns about the fate of the region east of I-95, as well as the rural west and other rural sections nobody to date has come up with solutions to the crisis. Every day that passes results in people getting poorer, less healthy, less educated and more ethnic, having to cope with a crumbling infrastructure.

Rural unemployment rates are horrendous, a result of the perfect storm of textile and other manufacturers closing their doors about the same time as the decline of tobacco and mechanization of agriculture put people out of work. No jobs mean no taxes and no corporate or charitable contributions to solve problems. The population exodus, especially in the past three decades, means they have fewer legislators and less clout in public policy decisions. And it must be admitted that some of current rural crisis is a result of the lack of entrepreneurial, dream-driven, results-focused local and regional leadership, not just from politicians but from all sectors.

Like the “Field of Dreams” movie the mantra has been, “If you build it, they will come,” and while nobody would pretend North Carolina has done enough we have made a concerted effort to build roads, run natural gas lines, construct high-speed Internet and even funnel economic development funds into regional economic development partnerships. Guess what? The jobs and the people didn’t come and whereas many have criticized the NC Rural Center and the Golden Leaf Foundation they have been the best hope rural regions have had.

Every person in our state, regardless of where they live, will benefit from stronger rural counties.  Growing, urban areas might not agree, but their growth is causing problems with traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, overtaxed water and sewer systems and higher crime rates. It could get worse. If we don’t find ways to improve rural conditions the courts will likely force more and more urban and state tax dollars be spent on rural areas for education, healthcare, unemployment benefits and other government payments. It’s the classic “pay me now or pay me later” situation.

Continuing to do little or nothing is not a solution. It won’t be easy and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, since each county and each region has singular advantages and disadvantages. But we must get started.

We call on Governor McCrory and all government leaders to make this their number one priority for 2014. Yes, there are other significant needs but none more threatening to our state’s future wellbeing. Next, we urge top business leaders and those from every sector to commit their time and resources to this issue. Most importantly, our rural leadership must rise to the challenge, put aside their petty sectional rivalries and jealousies and work toward as one for regional good.

Our state is home to some of the best and brightest thinkers in the world and not for one minutes do we believe we won’t find solutions if this is our priority. We’ve done it before and can do so now. North Carolina cannot succeed when 50 of our counties thriving and the remaining 50 are gasping for survival.

December 6, 2013 at 1:43 pm
TP Wohlford says:

The situation you describe is replicated elsewhere. Small rural towns all over the USA are dying, populations declining, their factories also closing due to changes in technology and competition. I've seen it in every state where I've been lucky enough to travel the back roads.

Then again, I have been in cities, including NC cities, which bear the damage of blight there. Many of the economic factors are the same -- decline of tobacco jobs, decline of manufacturing jobs, and a brain drain due to population loss. And we can both agree that those urban areas have had the "Benefit" of the attention of politicians of all levels!

So I have to ask -- what, praytell, do you think that the Gov should be doing here?

December 7, 2013 at 3:23 pm
Lynne Garrison says:

Education is the key, Tom. Check out a model, regional school in Plymouth, NC that's drawing students from a five-county region to the Vernon James Research Station (NCSU), with students working alongside scientists and researchers at the school. Or talk with Supt Austin Obasohan in Duplin County who is bringing a college-going mindset from pre-K through graduation. Great work is under way ... We need it to spread!

December 9, 2013 at 9:24 am
TP Wohlford says:

I'll play!

So, let's assume that the entire NC State university is replicated there, complete with an estimated 45,000 employees, $1.7 billion! Nice, jobs, and yeah, it really can boost a local economy (anyone wanna bet Chapel Hill would be a farm town w/o their campus?).

The last I checked, there were 370,000 people unemployed in NC. And that doesn't include those who have slipped through the cracks.

But we all know that the projects you're talking about hire precious few people. The Vernon James Research Station -- 12 staff, probably paying no taxes beyond FICA for employees, etc.

And those kids in Duplin County? When they "go to college" then will leave, and never come back. Those who don't go will try to lead as best they can.