North Carolina stretches 500 miles from the beaches of Dare County to the mountains of Cherokee County – a state of diverse natural assets, topography, population density and infrastructure. Accordingly, the opportunities – and the challenges – of the state’s regions are different. Moreover, the strategies that can drive their economic development success must be tailored to their unique circumstances. By collaborating, groupings of contiguous counties can assess their strengths and weaknesses and take concerted action to optimize their region’s potential.
Many of these regions are predominantly rural in character, with small counties and towns clustered around a regional hub city. Most have not participated equally with metropolitan regions in the recovery from the Great Recession, and have been disproportionately impacted by structural changes in the world economy which have accelerated the loss of manufacturing jobs.1 Meanwhile, resources to help regions outside the major metro areas have been reduced.
Organize a region-centric economic development strategy.
To initiate action, the Governor should convene the leadership of the partnering counties, provide planning support through the Department of Commerce’s Division of Community Assistance to develop SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis-based strategic plans and metrics of progress for these regions and support the implementation of their plans with investments tailored to their strategy objectives. The Division can serve the role of a “backbone” for these regional collaborations – convening, providing consulting and assisting with tracking progress.
As the prelude for this policy initiative, the Division of Community Assistance should utilize an empirical methodology developed by Dr. Mike Walden of N.C. State2 to identify these economically interdependent regions, primarily rural counties and communities, but which include a “hub” metropolitan community. Proposed regional groupings would be vetted with local leaders to ensure concurrence and consensus with the composition of the regions.
The state should coordinate grant making and investments from existing funding sources, such as CDBG, WIOA, Main Street, ARC and IDF, as well as newly appropriated funding provided as a strategic commitment to a truly effective rural development policy. Funding decisions should reward regions that have developed high levels of internal collaboration, and such decisions should also target each region’s strategic objectives.
1 Tippet, Rebecca. (June 23, 2014). North Carolina’s Economically Distressed Tracts & Neighbors, Pre- and Post-Recession. Carolina Population Center, University of North Carolina.
2 Walden, Dr. Michael L. (August 2008). “Designing Hubs of Economic Activity in North Carolina.” North Carolina Department of Commerce.