The nearly 500 small towns in North Carolina with less than 10,000 people are home for nearly 1 million people and like parts of the rest of the state many have been damaged by "layoffs, business closings and persistent poverty," said Billy Ray Hall, president of The Rural Center, which is running the Small Towns Initiative. "Exiting textile and furniture industry has left us devastated in many ways," said Alan Rice of Wilkesboro, a member of the center's board of directors.
As part of the program, the center will help towns -- especially those with fewer than 5,000 people -- to develop strategies for reusing vacant buildings. The grants of up to $400,000 require that a job be created for each $10,000 in grant money and that local government match the money.
Also, 20 towns will be selected for three-year pilot development projects and a council has been established to advocate policies that could help small towns.
The program also will provide development coaches for local officials and give them scholarships for university training on redevelopment.
The initiative was announced at a Rural Center meeting attended by some 600 local and regional officials. It will be paid for with about $5 million a year from the Legislature's $20 million annual appropriation to the center.
State Rep. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford, said the program was long overdue.
"Bring it on," Hunter said. "Small town North Carolina is really, really ready. It's rough out there. We need the jobs. We need the housing."
The initiative should benefit towns that have suffered from manufacturing shutdowns, but don't have the staff and other resources for redevelopment that large communities have, said Marion Mayor Everette Clark, also president of the North Carolina League of Municipalities.
"It is the small towns, like Marion, that are the economic engines of our rural areas," Clark said.
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