As one who was born and raised in Eastern Carolina I hate to see what is happening to this rural region. Many voice concerns about the fate of the region east of I-95, as well as the rural west and other rural sections nobody to date has come up with solutions to the crisis. Every day that passes results in people getting poorer, less healthy, less educated and more ethnic, having to cope with a crumbling infrastructure.
Rural unemployment rates are horrendous, a result of the perfect storm of textile and other manufacturers closing their doors about the same time as the decline of tobacco and mechanization of agriculture put people out of work. No jobs mean no taxes and no corporate or charitable contributions to solve problems. The population exodus, especially in the past three decades, means they have fewer legislators and less clout in public policy decisions. And it must be admitted that some of current rural crisis is a result of the lack of entrepreneurial, dream-driven, results-focused local and regional leadership, not just from politicians but from all sectors.
Like the "Field of Dreams" movie the mantra has been, "If you build it, they will come," and while nobody would pretend North Carolina has done enough we have made a concerted effort to build roads, run natural gas lines, construct high-speed Internet and even funnel economic development funds into regional economic development partnerships. Guess what? The jobs and the people didn't come and whereas many have criticized the NC Rural Center and the Golden Leaf Foundation they have been the best hope rural regions have had.
Every person in our state, regardless of where they live, will benefit from stronger rural counties. Growing, urban areas might not agree, but their growth is causing problems with traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, overtaxed water and sewer systems and higher crime rates. It could get worse. If we don't find ways to improve rural conditions the courts will likely force more and more urban and state tax dollars be spent on rural areas for education, healthcare, unemployment benefits and other government payments. It's the classic "pay me now or pay me later" situation.
Continuing to do little or nothing is not a solution. It won't be easy and there's no one-size-fits-all answer, since each county and each region has singular advantages and disadvantages. But we must get started.
We call on Governor McCrory and all government leaders to make this their number one priority for 2014. Yes, there are other significant needs but none more threatening to our state's future wellbeing. Next, we urge top business leaders and those from every sector to commit their time and resources to this issue. Most importantly, our rural leadership must rise to the challenge, put aside their petty sectional rivalries and jealousies and work toward as one for regional good.
Our state is home to some of the best and brightest thinkers in the world and not for one minutes do we believe we won't find solutions if this is our priority. We've done it before and can do so now. North Carolina cannot succeed when 50 of our counties thriving and the remaining 50 are gasping for survival.
Publisher's note: Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN
, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing Sundays at 11:00 am on WITN-TV
. Contact Tom at NC Spin.