Tom Campbell: NC can’t force rural development

Published 5:38 pm Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In the late 1970s, I was appointed to the Economic Development Board. At the time I lived in northeastern North Carolina and believed rural areas deserved to get their share of the economic growth and prosperity locating in urban areas.

I was convinced our economic developers weren’t doing enough to sell prospects on rural areas. After every new economic development announcement I would vigorously question Commerce Secretary Lauch Faircloth and his team as to why these projects didn’t select a rural site, constantly touting the wonderful lifestyle, lower property taxes and land prices. Finally, exasperated with my harangues, Faircloth, in his classic fashion, told me the best economic developers in the world couldn’t convince industries to select areas where they didn’t want to locate.

What sounded like a cop-out at the time grew into a reality I had to accept. In too many cases, rural sections didn’t have a sufficiently trained workforce or infrastructure. Cultural amenities were sparse, and health care and schools were generally not as good as those in more urban areas.

Since 1992, North Carolina has been forced by competition to get into the high-stakes game of offering economic incentives, a need exacerbated when the few industrial plants located in rural communities closed.

A WRAL-TV News analysis of the $859.4 million in state incentive money handed out from 2008 to 2015 shows that $660.8 million went to firms locating in the 20 wealthiest counties statewide, while only $104.8 million went to companies in the 40 poorest counties.

State Sen. Harry Brown, along with others, sponsored legislation that would change North Carolina’s economic incentive programs, mandating that the 20 wealthiest counties would be limited to no more than half the $20 million in annual Job Development Investment Grants, while the other 80 counties would receive the rest. The One North Carolina Fund would allow poorer counties to match 33 cents for every state dollar granted, while mandating as much as a 4-to-1 match in wealthier counties. The bill’s intent, says Brown, is to change behavior from economic developers and businesses desiring grants.

We have a long history of legislation attempting to change behaviors. In too many instances, these attempts failed or even backfired. Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland, who has been in economic development a long time, says Brown’s bill will not result in more industries in rural areas and could harm urban sections.

Our state will not grow by punishing some counties at the expense of others. Instead, we must focus energies and dollars on workforce development and infrastructure improvements in rural areas. We can’t force businesses to locate where we want them, but we can make rural areas more attractive locations for them to choose.

Tom Campbell is former assistant state treasurer and is host of NC SPIN.