Sunday, June 23, 2024

Hitting all 100 counties in an authentic way

Last month, I was reading something on the Golden LEAF Foundation web site that struck me as interesting.  The president of the Rocky Mount philanthropy, Scott T. Hamilton, writes a column, and in this one, he mentioned that he had accomplished his goal of visiting all 100 North Carolina counties.

It was a goal he set when he joined Golden LEAF in November 2019.  I talked with him about this, because it reminded me of the old days when I was a young reporter, how candidates for statewide office campaigned. They would drive around, going to courthouses and country stores. There is less of that, in part because so much of the state’s population is concentrated in urban counties and not in small towns.

Scott Hamilton

But Golden LEAF’s major focus is rural North Carolina and has been since it was created in the late 1990s with a chunk of the state’s settlement money from the big tobacco companies. In the past couple of decades, Golden LEAF has distributed more than $1.1 billion in grants to help spur rural economic development and it still managed to grow its assets to nearly $1.4 billion by mid-2021.

Hamilton thought it would be a good idea, when he took over, to get around and talk to folks in a systematic way. A saying he heard in high school — “You can pretend to care but you can’t pretend to be there” – made an impression on him. When it comes to learning about places and building relationships, there’s no substitute for going there.

“I have kept that saying in the back of my mind,” says Hamilton.

Started in the East

His initial focus was Eastern North Carolina because he had spent most of his career in the western side of the state. A graduate of UNC Greensboro, he came up through economic development jobs in places like Caldwell and Henderson counties, and in leading the AdvantageWest economic development group.  His last stop before Golden LEAF was running the Appalachian Regional Commission.

He set up some ground rules for what qualified as an official visit.

“It couldn’t be that I just drove through it and stopped and got a pack of Nabs,” says Hamilton. And it wouldn’t qualify as a real visit if he was only visiting with a Golden LEAF board member.

To qualify for the hundred-county project, there also had to be a meeting with local elected or civic leaders, or an economic development director, or a chamber official or community college president or state legislators. “Really having a strategic meeting about what’s going on in that community.”

The first official visit was to Craven County. He went to about a quarter of the state’s counties – most of them east of Interstate 95 – from November 2019 to mid-March 2020. He was in Fayetteville on March 20, and woke up that morning in a hotel with a couple of meetings scheduled.

Canceled meetings

“And all of a sudden, ping, we’re canceling the meeting, ping, we’re canceling the meeting. So I actually came back here to Rocky Mount that day,” he says. “And then, by and large, didn’t get back out until almost a year.”

When the pandemic eased, he was able to resume his visits. At the end of this June, he finished with Chatham County.

“A lot of people would say, well, I’m surprised he’s never been to Chatham.  Well, I had been to Chatham. But in the definition of this program, I hadn’t been there.”

Chatham is a scale-model of North Carolina, with growing suburbs on the west side of the Research Triangle and small towns and crossroads communities surrounded by farmland in the rest of the Piedmont county. It is an important place right now in the state’s economic development plans because of its proximity to a large, skilled Carolina Core labor force from the Triad to the Triangle to Fayetteville, but also its big, shovel-ready industrial sites, which Golden LEAF has helped to get ready.

Auto manufacturer VinFast announced earlier this year plans to build an electric car plant at Triangle Innovation Point, a 2,150-acre “megasite” in the southeastern corner of the county. The plant could employ 7,500 workers by 2027.

Back in 2016, Golden LEAF awarded a $4 million grant to the city of Sanford for sewer infrastructure for  the site.  After VinFast’s announcement, the foundation approved another $50 million for water and sewer infrastructure.

On the western side of Chatham, Golden LEAF made a grant of $3.6 million in 2016 to help Siler City with water and sewer infrastructure for an 1,802-acre megasite state officials hope can attract a semiconductor plant.

During his visit, Hamilton and Mike Smith, the Chatham economic development director, went up in a helicopter to see the sites, and as well as the land in neighboring Randolph County where Toyota is building its 1,750-employee battery plant at another megasite.

Golden LEAF already had made a $7 million infrastructure grant for that site, back in 2016, and last December, after the Toyota announcement, awarded another $40 million for road improvements.

So, the helicopter ride was a chance for Hamilton to get an aerial look at rural communities where Golden LEAF has committed more than $100 million over the past six years to help attract projects that could bring more than 10,000 jobs. State and local incentives are typically the biggest money at the table in economic development projects, but Golden LEAF is often brought in to help close deals.

Golden LEAF projects

But most of Golden LEAF’s around 2,000 grants over the past two decades have been smaller, although they are crucial for local initiatives. The foundation is tightly focused on projects that will create jobs in rural counties that last well after the Golden LEAF grant has been spent.

So, in his journey, Hamilton heard about lots of projects Golden LEAF funded years ago.

“Time after time, communities would say, because of Golden LEAF’s initial investment six years ago, eight years ago, 10 years ago, we have leveraged this, and this is what it is today.  If it hadn’t been for some of that initial funding from Golden LEAF, this would have never happened.”

He also got the chance to hear about new projects, and local economic development strategies, because the foundation wants “to be in on the front end of an idea, not the tail end of a project. We want to find what component of that strategy may be good for Golden LEAF.”

Being on the ground gives a different perspective than reading proposals, Hamilton says. “We want to get out and we want to see it, touch it, feel it, experience it.”

Sometimes a grant request will come in that looks good on paper, but “when we get there and visit, it’s not really ready, or it’s not really the fit we thought it was.”

And other times, the foundation may get a proposal that doesn’t look strong when it lands in Rocky Mount, “but you get to the community, and you realize there is collaboration; there are people at the table that are coming together that hadn’t been at the table before. There’s a good group of people, and this is going to be more successful than it was communicated on a piece of paper.”

His new goal is to visit all 58 community colleges. Hamilton has already been to many of them. Golden LEAF has a long-standing scholarship program that has provided more than $55 million to rural students at our community colleges and universities over more than two decades.

A big state

Since November 2019, Hamilton has traveled more than 39,000 miles around the state. A lot of that was the 100-county project, because this is a big state from the Tennessee line to the Outer Banks.  It reminded Hamilton of a story from when he was working for the 23-county AdvantageWest, and the chairman lived in Macon County, in the mountains.

“So, whenever I would go over to Macon County to see him — our office was at the Asheville regional airport — every time I would leave his office, he’d slap me on the back and say have a good trip east.

“Always joking, but always making the point there’s still a lot here beyond Asheville. And you can take that for any sector of North Carolina, in each region, and apply that, keep that in mind.

“That there is much more to this state . . . it’s a massive state, so being able to get across it and remember all of it . . .  That was his comment, remember all of the region.  And my thought on that is that we’ve got to be present and visible in all of the state.”

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