Gov. Roy Cooper visited Pinehurst on Thursday to kick off a two-day conference that brings together economic developers and thought leaders from 65 rural North Carolina counties.
“I know the importance of community and leaders in a community and how that affects the prosperity of counties in rural North Carolina,” Cooper said.
The work of the Energizing Rural North Carolina conference is focused on how five factors — workforce, infrastructure, education, health and leadership — shape economic outcomes and contribute to long-term quality of life issues in rural areas.
North Carolina is a rural state. Eighty out of 100 counties are located outside one of the major metropolitan areas, but rural areas offer inherent advantages that can be leveraged: things like cost of living is typically lower in a rural area, communities are friendlier, there is more open space and, often, closer proximity to natural resources.
“We need to sell, sell, sell those attributes for rural North Carolina,” Cooper said.
Earlier this year, Cooper launched the Hometown Strong initiative to help break down what he called communication “silos” and to “use the convening power of the governor’s office” to help rural counties get the attention and assistance they need from state government agencies.
“It is not ‘I’m from Raleigh and I’m here to help you.’ It is often, “I’m from Raleigh and I’m here to get out of your way,” Cooper said. “We know that Hometown Strong can play a significant role in making sure that rural North Carolina is heard, that we focus attention on that part of the state, and that we are successful in economic growth.”
One key issue he addressed is workforce development, noting that companies will not come to North Carolina if there are not enough people trained to perform the jobs they require.
“That is why investment in education is critical,” Cooper said, arguing in favor of more school funding, improving teacher pay, and developing work-based learning programs with employers.
“My CEO mission statement is I want a North Carolina where people are better educated, where they’re healthier, where they have more money in their pockets, and they have the opportunity to live a more abundant and purposeful life.”
The two-day conference includes additional guest speakers, case studies and round table discussions. Steering committee members include the North Carolina Department of Commerce, the NC Rural Center, the Golden Leaf Foundation, NC State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues, and the North Carolina Economic Development Association.
Caleb Miles, former president and CEO of the Pinehurst Southern Pines Aberdeen Convention & Visitors Bureau, serves on the board of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC) which convened the conference.
“Moore County was selected for this conference because it is centrally located and it is a rural county. It was also selected because we can demonstrate how a rural county can succeed,” Miles said. “But, with that being said, there is still a lot that we can learn.”
Robbins Town Manager David Lambert was one of several local officials in attendance.
“I’m hoping to hear a lot of details about how we can move rural North Carolina forward, specifically in regards to infrastructure and quality of life. These have been Robbins goal for some time, and this conference is bringing together the right people with expertise to the table,” he said.
Lambert said for a rural municipality like Robbins, budgeting town services can be challenging and requires choices.
“We are trying to grow ourselves. We have taken a multi-faceted approach to improving quality of life, but we are still a very poor town with some very real decisions we need to make,” he said. “We are working within the boundaries of what we must provide and also looking at ways we can create community.”
This month Robbins will unveil a new performance stage in the downtown green space, which Lambert said will be used for outdoor movies, concerts, and other community-friendly events.
“I am hoping to hear more about these kinds of ideas that we could utilize. We are looking for small investments that have big value. Those things we can do to maximize our town and make it a place you want to live,” Lambert added.
Photo from The Pilot / Business North Carolina