There’s no shortage of public and private sector concern and sincere interest in helping rural North Carolina move forward. As president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, an organization directed by a court order, law, and charter to help transform the economy of rural, tobacco-dependent and economically distressed areas of our state almost 20 years ago, I’m often asked what we are doing and what needs to be done to fulfill that awesome mission.
Earlier this month we reported to the governor and General Assembly that last year we provided $112 million to communities through 134 grants across the state. About half of that is dedicated to communities still recovering from the effects of Hurricane Matthew, as the legislature provided funds for us to award and oversee in an efficient, effective manner. The fruits of these grants will be apparent in months and years to come.
The Golden LEAF Foundation’s assistance facilitated the creation of over 2,000 jobs and $84 million in payroll, and over $1 billion in capital investment, according to reports from our grantees. These numbers are not speculative – but actual data.
So what is needed now for rural North Carolina? What lessons have we learned?
Be ready with places: Rural communities simply do not have the same number of opportunities for companies to relocate or for economic expansion expand. Golden LEAF has been committed to help with water, sewer and roads for megasites in rural areas even before any specific job creation project are known. Because we were more prepared for development, companies like Clearwater Paper in Cleveland County and Triangle Tyre in Edgecombe County had the confidence to announce plans to locate facilities and bring a combined 980 jobs to rural communities. Commitments in Triad megasites helped gain the strong interest of Toyota-Mazda in Randolph County. We are prepared for the next opportunity.
Be ready with people: Access to a quality workforce is first on the list of priorities, private business leaders consistently stress. Rural areas don’t have as large a labor pool as urban areas. So, rural labor pools must be high quality, providing both skilled and educated workers. Golden LEAF has invested millions into in our public schools for digital learning, STEM programming as well as into our community colleges and universities for direct workforce development. This has helped with better student achievement, provided more challenging coursework, and resulted in higher completion rates at all levels. We need to keep our foot on the gas to make sure all children – and adults – are fully prepared to participate in the modern economy.
Be ready to collaborate: Golden LEAF can and has done much to help further its mission, but we don’t do it alone. We have built local voices -- those closest to the action. We also work with the state, and federal governments as well as with private philanthropy to co-invest, share lessons learned about what does and doesn’t work. For instance, North Carolina has been widely recognized for its broadband fiber network serving our schools, colleges, hospitals and libraries, built through a $24 million Golden LEAF grant -- that helped access another $80 million in federal funds. In 2007, with SAS Institute founder Jim Goodnight, we began funding computers and other devices to bring digital learning to the state’s public schools. These grants helped inform the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan almost 10 years later.
Be ready to connect: North Carolina takes pride in our diverse agriculture. We have to do more to ensure that value stays here. Golden LEAF leveraged the state’s investment in a Food Processing Innovation Center in Kannapolis to provide manufacturers the chance to try out new products and techniques, and work with our farmers on uses for what we grow and raise.
We invested $10 million in Vidant Medical’s new Cancer Center in Greenville. Beyond improving the detection and treatment in the state’s region with the highest rate of cancer mortality, this grant gave Vidant the stability to make crucial investments in its regional hospitals in Bertie, Chowan, Duplin, and Edgecombe counties. Connections are critical.
Be ready to be flexible: The urban-rural divide. Tiers. Incentives. North Carolina urban and rural areas are more tied together than in virtually other state, and artificial political lines do not reflect economic reality. Sometimes we fixate on ways to impose order on complicated situations. Then we try to figure out even more complex ways to overcome the false order. This is unproductive and fails to move communities forward. A welcoming business environment depends on both long-term stability and short-term flexibility.
Some areas of the state are doing better than others and we applaud our state leaders who - for 20 years - have recognized that challenge and supported comprehensive efforts to improve the playing field statewide. The Golden LEAF Foundation pledges to support this vision by continuing to do our part to help rural areas grow and prosper.