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Can towns get a piece of state’s lopsided growth?

RALEIGH — Between July 2016 and July of this year, North Carolina added enough people to its population to build a new city the size of Wilmington — an increase of 116,730 people that makes us one of the fastest-growing states in the country, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau numbers.

Our state is projected to have 10.6 million residents in 2020, up from 10.3 million this year. While some of that growth comes naturally — more births than deaths — the majority of the increase comes from newcomers moving here from other states and countries. The statistics released this month include a net international migration of 20,162 people and a net domestic migration of 66,051.

We’re in far better shape than our closest neighbor, Virginia, where domestic migration is going the other direction — it lost a net total of 12,935 residents headed to other states.

The numbers spell good news for the state’s economy and its political importance in the country: We’re on track to get a 14th representative in Congress after the next census.

But the census numbers aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. A big chunk of North Carolina isn’t seeing any of this population growth, and the population is dropping as people leave to find jobs elsewhere. Several small towns east of Interstate 95 lost nearly 10 percent of their population between 2010 and 2016.

Charlie Perusse, budget director for Gov. Roy Cooper, shared some depressing statistics in a recent presentation to reporters to highlight North Carolina’s challenges. While the Raleigh area has had 19 percent job growth since the recession — the state’s highest — parts of the state still haven’t hit the number of jobs they had before the recession.

Job growth has been largely stagnant in the Triad, Fayetteville and Greenville. Even worse, “the Goldsboro and Rocky Mount (regions) had fewer jobs in October 2017 than at any point during the period from 2007 through 2010,” according to Perusse’s presentation. And while 30 counties are expected to see population growth of more than 10 percent over the next decade, 29 counties are projected to lose population.

So what’s to be done about it? State leaders are trying, when possible, to lure back manufacturing plants to rural communities where shuttered factories dot the landscape.

Edgecombe County got positive news this month when a Chinese tire company announced plans for an 800-job plant, which Cooper says is the largest manufacturing investment ever in rural North Carolina. But it comes at a steep price: $152 million in incentives, or about $19,000 per job.

Incentives can help jump-start the economy in depressed areas, but the state can’t afford to create all its new jobs by handing tax receipts back to corporate executives. And there’s generally not a magic government bullet to bring a city like Rocky Mount back to its former glory.

The demographic shifts from rural to urban aren’t unique to North Carolina, and many companies and families would never consider leaving Mecklenburg or Wake County for a smaller community.

The goal for state leaders should be to stop the bleeding: Attracting enough jobs to rural areas so that the people who want a small-town life can find work and stay put.

Politicians have to invest in boring stuff like water, sewer and internet infrastructure that can support companies large and small, from foreign conglomerates to homegrown start-ups. Crumbling infrastructure is a big problem for small towns because they’ve lost the tax base to fix it.

Cooper was unsuccessful in getting $30 million in the current state budget for what he calls “ready sites,” infrastructure projects for 50- to 200-acre tracts being marketed to employers. Legislators should give the idea another look in 2018 — most of the Republican leadership represents rural counties, so funding that targets low-wealth counties ought to be an easy sell.

While the bulk of the 1.1 million people expected to join North Carolina’s population by 2027 will inevitably end up in urban counties, small towns don’t have to become ghost towns — but they do need help to turn the tide.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.



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