Strengthening rural counties

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North Carolina is blessed with thriving metropolitan centers, billion-dollar medical and technology hubs and gorgeous scenery from mountaintops to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s also a state in which 80 of its 100 counties are classified as rural, with a combined population of 2.2 million. The economic health of many rural counties is a concern given their relative slow growth compared with the bigger metro areas.

To identify needs and promote solutions to aid rural areas, Gov. Roy Cooper started Hometown Strong in February 2018 as a partnership between a dozen state agencies and local communities. Teams were assigned to visit each of the 80 rural counties, confer with local leaders and concoct plans of action. So far, 40 counties have been visited, with several moving to alleviate problems. 

Mary Penny Kelley, a veteran state employee, became executive director last July, as COVID-19 rewrote the script. “We didn’t do big meetings, but we got a lot of incoming calls,” she says. “We started a contact list, put the Hometown Strong banner on it, and said, ‘We’re really targeting this, do you need help or someone to talk with? Someone to help write grants?’ So that was appreciated.” Action Teams assessed priority topics, made follow-up calls. 

Kelley plans to hold a series of so-called “Deep Dive” sessions, Tuesday Zoom meetings beginning in the next few weeks with areas that could use a boost from Hometown Strong in what she calls geographical Prosperity Zones. In no particular order they are: Franklinton in Franklin County, Ahoskie in Hertford County, all of Catawba County, Jonesville in Yadkin County, Raeford in Hoke County, Biscoe in Montgomery County, Snow Hill in Greene County, Rose Hill in Duplin County, and Dallas in Gaston County.

Last week, Gov. Cooper announced the state’s Rural Infrastructure Authority approval of 12 economic-development grants to local governments totaling $4.6 million. The public investment in these projects will attract more than $60 million in private investment and include commitments to create a combined 439 jobs, 64 of which were previously announced. according to the governor’s office. The authority  is part of the Rural Grant Program, under the Department of Commerce.

Hometown Strong initiated the installation of 410 “Park and Learn” sites statewide, with Wi-Fi hot spots for people without internet to have places for distance-learning education, or work centers. “Probably two-thirds of the state has them,” Kelley says. “It’s not as good as having it in your house, where you have privacy, and we know weather can be a problem.” In a recent 30-day window across 454 sites, the agency counted 17,868 sessions, with an average of 616 sessions a day, and at least one session lasting 90 minutes. 

Park and Learn is in addition to 84,700 hotspots installed to serve students in 200 school districts.

Kelley’s agency also set up an N.C. Student Connect Conference Hub (ncstudentconnect.com) with free links to virtual experiences in the arts (museum and historic sites visits), STEM standards for middle and high schools, and REAL 2.0, designed for parents and educators with ways to increase success with online learning.

This year, Kelley says, Hometown Strong’s 2021 Community Economic Recovery and Resilience Initiative will look at COVID-19’s impact on small businesses and diminished local revenue, and foster individual recovery acts for every county. What kind of government support can help? CERRI will outline a Plan of Work, a planning process and implementation strategy involving local leaders, the Department of Commerce and regional organizations. The six- to eight-month process covers: a community workshop, contacts with a planner, project implementation, development of a Plan of Work, delivery of implementation services and project completion. 

Meanwhile, county visits will continue in some COVID-19-safe form. “We’ll find their priorities, and they’ll have names and numbers of people in government, so they can call on them,” Kelley says. “And we’ll check on them periodically. Some may not have anything they need right now, but they’ll have our card in their pocket.”

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