Local News

City Growth Can Add Up to Small-Town Losses

Posted January 3, 2007 9:23 p.m. EST

— While the cities boom, small-town North Carolina is in real danger of being left behind.

With 12,000 additional people each year, Raleigh is thriving, but it's happening others’ expense. In some small towns across the state, it has become a struggle to survive. Skilled workers are abandoning rural areas.

At a Raleigh Chamber of Commerce Economic Forecast event Wednesday morning, Wachovia’s Corp.'s chief economist, John Silvia, told the business community that the explanation is rather simple: high school graduates leave their small towns to go to college and don't return after they get their degrees.

That's because the job opportunities are in larger cities like Raleigh, a situation that is forcing some areas to come up with new ways to keep their populations.

The small Harnett County town of Erwin is one of them. Since 2000, the town has lost about 1,000 jobs.

The closing of the local denim mill "was a belly punch,” said Lee Anne Nance, director of the Harnett County Economic Development Commission. More recently, Good Hope Hospital shut its doors.

Now, the town of Erwin and Harnett County are trying to ensure the town doesn't lose part of its population. They are developing a paddling park on the Cape Fear River to attract recreation and spending money on factory upgrades in hopes of luring new industry.

The goal is “to recreate an economy not based on one primary industry and to bring jobs back that provide better quality of life,” said Nance.

Erwin is trying to prevent what has happened in other parts of the state, as the migration of the young to  Raleigh and Charlotte takes its toll.

According to Silvia, Fayetteville lost more than 4400 people in 2005. The population has also declined in Goldsboro, Jacksonville and Rocky Mount.

Silvia says attracting quality jobs to declining areas isn't easy.

“You cannot force companies or people to locate in areas where they really don't see opportunities,” he told the business group. Those towns, he said, must figure out their comparative advantages and re-identify themselves.

“How are you attracting workers? Why are people showing up? (You figure it out) and you build upon that," he said.

Among the options Silvia offered as examples are for towns to try to identify themselves as retirement communities, attracting seniors who want more of a quiet environment.

The top five places from which new residents are coming to Raleigh? Durham, then New York, Washington. D.C., Charlotte and Wilmington.