Sunday, June 23, 2024

Commentary: State’s rural-urban divide is a chasm

Although many small towns are experiencing declining populations, Pinehurst has managed to stay afloat using charm, views and golf to attract tourists and retirees.


By Mark Washburn

North Carolina’s small towns were once celebrated as the state’s bucolic touchstones, places known for their muscle and charm. As the state industrialized in the 20th century, it did so broadly, and towns grew up around core industries such as agriculture, furniture and textiles.

Now, many of those towns are mummifying in plain sight, paint-peeling, shabby and isolated. While North Carolina’s population has surged 6% this decade, more than a third of the state’s cities have lost population, a staggering contradiction in one of the Sun Belt’s most dynamic regions.

North Carolina’s growth blazes in an arc along Interstate 85 — Charlotte and Raleigh are the roaring engines of growth at opposite ends of the path. Asheville and Wilmington are the two dynamos bookending development along Interstate 40.

But many heritage, blue-collar cities outside those corridors are faltering. They shed energy and brain power as the young leave in search of work. Some cities lost industry and couldn’t rebound. Others suffocated as improved highways and economic recovery passed them by.

The state’s rural-urban divide is a yawning chasm, according to a study by the N.C. Poverty Research Fund, which examined Goldsboro in the east and Wilkes County in the west.
Goldsboro is ranked among the nation’s poorest cities. In the last decade, the median income has tumbled 26%. A quarter of its residents are impoverished, compared with about 15% statewide.

In Wilkes, median income has plunged about 30% since 2000 with the losses of Lowe’s Cos. headquarters, Holly Farms and North Wilkesboro Speedway. Disability, overdose and addiction rates are high.

Most stricken is a pocket of northeastern North Carolina, according to the UNC Carolina Population Center. Ten of the cities with the highest rates of population loss are in the three agricultural counties of Northampton, Bertie and Washington.

Some cities that lost industry have punched hard to come back. Albemarle teamed up with Stanly Community College on technology training to serve new industrial parks nearby. Its historic downtown attracted Pfeiffer University’s new Center for Health Sciences, offering graduate health programs.

Mount Airy, model for the idyllic Mayberry on the old Andy Griffith Show, built a vibrant arts colony and became the hub for a growing wine industry in the lee of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Other outliers have leveraged charm, views or golf to attract tourists and retirees — bustling destinations such as Banner Elk, Southern Pines and Southport.

Gov. Roy Cooper recently launched Hometown Strong, an initiative to revitalize dying rural communities. It aims at rebuilding downtowns, training workers, making small business loans and improving the connection to the 21st century’s taproot — high-speed internet.

For now, though, the main streets of the shadowlands make a dismal picture, one Norman Rockwell would never have painted.

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For 40 years, sharing the stories of North Carolina's dynamic business community.

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