RALEIGH (Feb. 11, 2019) – Yes, rural North Carolinians are statistically older, poorer, sicker and less-educated than their urban counterparts. But the differences and the oft-bemoaned rural-urban divide aren’t always stark.
“We prefer to think about the connections,” Chancellor Randy Woodson of NC State University said Monday as he opened the Institute for Emerging Issues’ ReCONNECT Rural & Urban forum.
Woodson noted that the university’s Cooperative Extension Service has offices in all 100 North Carolina counties. While NC State develops technology to make farming more efficient, he said, “That technology has no value unless it gets in the hands of farmers.”
Other speakers pointed to common problems faced by both rural and urban North Carolina: Poverty. The opioid epidemic. Lack of access to health insurance.
And a variety of themes emerged:
• Improve wages through higher education.
“Wages are largely driven by educational attainment,” Nathan Ramsey of the Mountain Area Workforce Development Board said during one breakout session.
That usually requires some form of post-secondary credential or degree, Ramsey said, and a student can earn a degree from a community college for less than $7,000.
“North Carolina’s community college system is a model to the world,” declared Karl Stauber, President/CEO of the Danville (Va.) Regional Foundation.
And Ginger Brick of the Cape Fear Council of Governments noted that at least two counties in Southeast North Carolina now provide two years of community college for free to qualifying students.
Robeson County native and state Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, pointed to the state’s public universities – with institutions like NC State, Western Carolina, East Carolina, UNC Pembroke and Elizabeth City State universities – as key to bridging the divide.
Gov. Roy Cooper said the state can “repair the teacher pipeline” by raising teacher pay at least to the national average and expanding the Teaching Fellows program, which provides forgivable loans for prospective teachers who agree to teach in high-demand fields.
• Focus on burgeoning fields.
One of the groups profiled at the forum was STEM SENC, which works with UNC Wilmington to expose students in 13 southeastern NC counties to the opportunities available in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
“We believe that urban youth and rural youth should be afforded the full range of opportunities … that education can provide,” said Carmen Sidbury, a PhD engineer who graduated from Dixon High School in Onslow County.
• Take advantage of technology.
“We’re a lot more connected than you think,” said Laura Lane of UPS.
UPS launched its first commercial drone service in Rwanda to deliver critical supplies of blood to the war-ravaged country, Lane said. And last year, the company made its first drone delivery in the United States to deliver medical supplies in North Carolina.
“You know what a drone does? It makes that rural community seem not so far away…. They can deliver life just in time,” she said.
“Think bigger, and connect Boone to Bogota or Brussels or Beijing, rather than just Raleigh.”
• Expand rural broadband.
Jean Davis, President and CEO of MCNC, said high-speed internet access is important both to tele-health for elderly rural residents trying to manage diabetes and heart conditions and to rural students who need access to the same homework aids as their urban peers.
The state-sponsored network has extended a “backbone” of 3,700 miles of fiber into 87 counties. The idea was “to take that capital cost out of the equation,” Davis said.
State Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said broadband access is controlled by private telecom providers, and state leaders are asking the companies: “What do you need in order to bridge this gap?”
Broadband access in the 21st century is not unlike rural electrification in the 20th. “This has to become a priority for the state and the local government,” Lewis said.
• Regional approaches to economic development.
Lewis and Alyssa Byrd of Carolina Core, a coalition of 17 urban and rural central NC counties, described instances where rural communities fought with their neighbors – in one case for a big company that’s a household name.
“We competed with each other – and we lost,” Byrd said.
“Carolina Core erases the traditional boundaries and focuses on winning… as a region,” she said. “We believe that a win for one is a win for all.”
• Build food interdependence.
Rural farmers need urban consumers – and vice-versa.
“Food comes from farms – not Food Lion,” said Leslie Boney, Director of the Institute for Emerging Issues.
Anupama Joshi of the Blue Sky Funders Forum spoke about the growing farm-to-school network, where farmers supply school cafeterias and introduce students to gardening.
“If that child has grown broccoli in that garden, that child will eat that broccoli without any complaints… It makes a difference in how kids are eating,” she said. “Kids win. Farmers win. Communities win.”
Such efforts also create jobs, she said – someone has to chop carrots and toss salads.
Erin White explained Project 40 – an effort to have the Triangle source 40% of its food from local growers by 2040.
“Going from 1% to 40% is a big jump,” White said. But a market should be there – the Triangle is projected to have 2.2 million people by 2040.
Or as NC Rural Center President Patrick Woodie puts it: “Rural needs urban, and urban needs rural.”