UpFront: September 2014
Little by little
Rural areas produced many of the visionaries who built North Carolina. Now small towns and cities struggle to stay relevant.
I grew up in a burg of about 13,000 people, so I’m biased. But I learned long ago that small towns and rural areas produce important things. Charlotte wouldn’t be what it is today without Hugh McColl Jr., from Bennettsville, S.C., or Bruton Smith, from Oakboro. Roger Soles, Greensboro’s most prominent business leader during the late 20th century, grew up on a Columbus County farm. BB&T Corp. CEO Kelly King was a Zebulon country boy before entering East Carolina University. It’s also an increasingly old-fashioned view — as quaint as Andy Griffith’s chummy Mayberry, which formed many Americans’ impression of North Carolina.
The odds are stacked against small-town America, as Ed Martin’s cover story on Robeson County demonstrates. Not long ago, our state’s poorest county was home to a $1 billion bank — in the mid-1980s, I visited Southern National Bank’s Lumberton headquarters and heard executives Hector MacLean and Joe Sandlin talk smack about their big-city rivals. But the town lost its sugar daddy after Southern National’s 1994 merger with Wilson-based BB&T, which moved the combined bank to Winston-Salem. Decades later, corporate America’s migration to bigger cities is accelerating as more millennials opt for the baristas, ballparks and brewpubs such places offer.
It’s not just rural areas suffering. Small cities, though substantial by North Carolina standards, are struggling to attract businesses and newcomers. In this issue, NCtrend examines the decline of Hickory’s young-adult population and, in response, a $40 million bond issue for bike paths and other beautification efforts. Sounds pretty squishy for one of the state’s Republican strongholds, but Mayor Rudy Wright says a tax hike is needed to lure and retain younger people. Good luck on reversing the trend. As Raleigh political consultant Gary Pearce, an adviser to four-term Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, notes, “I’ve been watching plans to improve the prospects of North Carolina rural areas for 40 years and not a damned one of them has worked.” Republican lawmakers had similar thoughts last year when they yanked more than $100 million from the state Rural Economic Development Center, which critics deemed a poorly managed bureaucratic fiefdom.
The primary hope for rural areas lies in developing stronger ties with major metros, which Wilson County did in July by joining the economic-development partnership that includes Raleigh and Durham (StateWide). To the west, Rutherford County is working with a community college in Spartanburg, S.C. — the nearest big city, some 35 miles away — to land a federal grant to train people for jobs in the chemical and materials industries.
“For a rural area to survive, you can’t do it alone,” says former Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who became president of Isothermal Community College in Spindale after losing the 2012 gubernatorial election. “You need to have a consortium so that economic development in Rutherford becomes part of a bigger region.” It’s important work, but Dalton knows the realities. His daughter and two grandchildren live in Raleigh, and he doesn’t expect they’ll be moving to Rutherfordton, his hometown, anytime soon.