State officials press to raise rural N.C. fortunes
By Melba Newsome
For years, the economic picture in and around Wilson has been an odd contradiction. Located about 45 miles east of Raleigh, the county has BB&T Corp., Bridgestone Corp. and other employers that have offered some of the state’s best wages. At the same time, Wilson’s poverty rate has also ranked near the top of the list. While area developers and elected officials have lured a variety of advanced manufacturing and life-sciences employers, many local residents lack the necessary skills and training to fill those jobs.
That conundrum sent local school-system officials and economic developers in search of an answer from the county’s industrial employers: Precisely what do they need and expect from new employees? Their responses led to the formation of a school to train maintenance technicians, one of the most difficult manufacturing jobs to fill. The Wilson Academy of Applied Technology, an early-college high school focused on training students to maintain increasingly sophisticated manufacturing equipment, opened fall 2016 with 56 ninth-graders.
In 2021, they will graduate with both a high-school diploma and an associate degree in applied engineering technology. (The school requires five years of training.) A manufacturing advisory board made up of representatives from 16 local businesses developed a curriculum that was relevant and current.
Civic and business leaders believe the school will play a major role in business recruitment, give graduates a reason to stay in the area and serve as a model for much-needed development.
“This represents one of the first and most noticeable successes that rural counties are having with early college and dual enrollment between high schools and community colleges,” says Patrick Woodie, president of the N.C. Rural Center. “It’s making a huge difference in our effort to upgrade and give our rural citizens more than a high-school education, which is an imperative in today’s economy.”
While North Carolina’s urban centers are experiencing gains in population and economic fortune, the story is different for many less densely populated areas. The state has the country’s second-largest rural population after Texas and more small towns of fewer than 7,500 people than any state except Pennsylvania, Woodie says. About 4.2 million of the state’s 10 million people live in 80 counties that have fewer than 250 people per square mile, the metric used in defining an area as rural. It’s easy to conclude that leaving behind 80% of counties and more than 40% of the population puts the state’s overall economy at risk.
Boosting rural North Carolina’s fortunes is a top agenda item for state lawmakers, regardless of party. “I am committed to bridging the rural-urban divide,” Gov. Roy Cooper says. “You don’t do it by pitting one against the other. You try to make sure that the tide rises and we all float upward.”
The governor’s signature initiative, Hometown Strong, is intended to encourage state agencies and local leaders to collaborate on leveraging resources. Hometown Strong starts by identifying ongoing projects and community needs, then relies on local authorities to implement plans that can improve infrastructure and strengthen cities and towns. Cooper named Pryor Gibson, a former state representative from Anson County, and Mary Penny Kelly, who worked for the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality for a decade, to lead the effort.
“I know how special our rural communities are, and I am committed to giving them the support they need to thrive,” says Cooper, who grew up in Nash County, where his father was a lawyer and his mother taught school. “That means increasing access to workforce training, improving infrastructure, expanding access to broadband internet necessary to recruit high-paying industries, and making sure local leaders have a voice in state government.”
Rural communities don’t want to take directions from Raleigh, but they want a partner who listens and helps when asked, the governor says. “Our rural areas often have to have a different approach to job training and economic development than our urban areas do. We want to let that innovation thrive and encourage that.”
Hometown Strong is part of Cooper’s N.C. Job Ready initiative, which emphasizes aiding students and workers in obtaining more skills and achieving education goals; tapping employers to provide more job-training programs; and emphasizing innovation and leadership development in rural areas. A key person shepherding the program is Napoleon Wallace, whom Cooper appointed in April 2017 as deputy secretary of the N.C. Department of Commerce to focus on rural economic-development issues. After growing up in Pitt and Beaufort counties and earning degrees from N.C. Central University and UNC Chapel Hill, Wallace worked on community development for the Self-Help Credit Union in Durham and the Detroit-based Kresge Foundation. He’s spent his first year in state government looking for ways to better prioritize state resources to assist local communities.
While some states spend all or most of federal development grant money in urban areas, North Carolina decided to focus on less populated areas. Since 2013, federal, state and local governments, along with foundations and other groups, have invested about $500 million in rural redevelopment. The state budget passed in June includes $20 million annually for various rural projects.
Wallace points to the Rocky Mount Mills redevelopment in Rocky Mount as a model of success in a less-populous part of the state. The 200-year-old cotton mill on the Tar River ceased operations in 1996 as the U.S. textile industry shifted to overseas manufacturing. Now, the multimillion-dollar project developed by Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting Co. includes a mix of offices, rental homes, apartments and retail.
Another example of pushing rural issues to the forefront is a statewide conference planned this month by the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. Created during Gov. Pat McCrory’s tenure, the public-private partnership is best known for its efforts to recruit large employers, including MetLife Inc., Triangle Tyre Co. and others. But the Cary-based nonprofit led by Chris Chung also is charged with supporting existing industries. At the July 12-13 conference in Pinehurst, economic-development leaders from rural communities across the state will explore how infrastructure, workforce, education, health and leadership shape economic outcomes. Officials in each county were asked to invite up to three guests who are “local influencers,” according to a partnership statement. Mike Hawkins, a Transylvania County commissioner who heads the partnership’s rural working group, is helping lead the effort.
Separately, the N.C. Rural Center also works to support existing businesses and startups. “The data says there’s a sense of urgency about a decline in the number of small-business establishments and the rate of new business startups,” says Woodie, who took his post in 2013 after the forced resignation of longtime center leader Billy Ray Hall.
In 2017, Woodie and the center’s advocacy director, John Coggin, traveled to the 80 rural counties and met with more than 1,600 rural citizens to hear their ideas about ways to improve infrastructure and health systems and how to provide more support for existing small businesses. The consensus was that more needs to be done to help local entrepreneurs and companies rooted in the towns.
While making micro-loans to people with limited resources, women and entrepreneurs of color has been a focus of the center since its founding in 1987, Woodie is leading new efforts. In 2017, the organization launched business workshops focused on Latino communities, and last month it unveiled Thread Capital, a new subsidiary that will make loans to startups and existing businesses in rural areas. The effort has backing from BB&T, Wells Fargo, the Golden LEAF Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The challenge has always been how to reach more people faster and do more about credit access, capital access and the startup of small businesses,” Woodie says.
He points to early-college and dual-enrollment models such as Wilson’s school as a prominent indicator of rural development. Increased collaboration among K-12 schools, community colleges and public and private universities allow high-school students to enroll in college courses and earn transferable college credit, while also preparing them for well-paying jobs in specified fields.
“These programs are better connecting young people with real economic opportunities, educating them about local job opportunities and, in the process, reaching a generation of parents and grandparents that probably had a very bad experience with manufacturing,” he says.
He also points to another encouraging sign: Some rural N.C. counties are seeing a net increase of 31- to 40-year-olds. Many are young families returning to places where they grew up, and others are transplants drawn to a rural quality of life.
Beyond the tech academy, Wilson is also diversifying its economic base. Once dubbed the world’s greatest tobacco market, its economy is now driven by manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, greenhouses and nurseries. Switzerland-based pharma-packaging manufacturer Hoffmann Neopac AG announced plans in April to invest more than $30 million and create up to 44 new jobs at its first U.S. manufacturing plant. Fresenius Kabi, a German drugmaker, plans to hire nearly 450 workers over the next five years at a Wilson plant opened in 2011 by Becton Dickinson & Co.
“We’re trying to take a fresh look at the issues from an economic-development lens,” says Frank Emory, a Charlotte attorney who is a native of Wilson and Gov. Cooper’s appointed chair of the Economic Development Partnership board. “When you drive wealth into this community, lots of things follow.”
Click the links below to see other economic development stories from the July issue