Patrick Woodie: Finding our rural voice

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 6, 2018

By Patrick Woodie

N.C. Rural Center

“This county is my heart and soul. I am here because I chose to be here. I’ve made my home here, raised my family here, and I’m going to make every effort to stay.”

We heard this inspiring quote on the last day of the Rural Center’s Rural Road Trip — a year-long, 80-county adventure to meet with a diverse sample of local leaders in each of the rural counties we serve. A small-business owner in Greene County encapsulated on that last day what we heard in towns from Murphy to Nags Head (that’s farther than Manteo) over the past year.

We set out on this journey last spring with a simple goal: to sit in conversation with the people who call rural places home and to hear directly from them about the challenges and successes in their communities, in their own “center of the universe.”

The character of our small towns varies just as much as the contours of our state’s beautiful landscape. And though no two small towns or rural communities are the same, one constant we found across the state is the pride rural citizens take in their communities; another was the remarkable consensus in opinion about the challenges those communities face.

Local leaders in rural communities are optimistic, but sober to reality, knowing that a silver bullet from a distant cavalry is not going to save them.

Unfortunately, negative issues plaguing our rural areas pose no easy solutions. Poverty is persistent, opioid and other forms of substance abuse are breaking families apart, rural hospitals and health systems are struggling, and vital access to broadband is unaffordable or nonexistent. A relatively flat or declining tax base has crippled infrastructure improvements, particularly for our rural water and wastewater systems.

But there are positive trends across the rural landscape. Namely, the success of early college programs, a surge of locally owned food-based businesses, a net increase among 31- to 40-year-olds planting roots and raising families in small communities that are ready for them, and a clearer understanding of the local assets that will drive even more businesses, visitors, and residents to rural places.

On May 29, hundreds of individuals representing our state’s 80 rural counties will arrive in Raleigh for the Rural Center’s second-annual Rural Day to tell our collective rural story in our own words, to reclaim the narrative of why rural people love their rural places and why those places matter.

Rural Day is also the opportunity for you to hear from our state leaders about their visions for rural North Carolina and for those leaders to hear what we heard about what rural communities need to thrive.

What do our rural communities want from our state and federal leaders?

They want genuine partnerships and a dedication to removing roadblocks instead of erecting new ones. So instead of telling rural places what is wrong with their communities and what needs to be fixed, let’s listen more faithfully and then roll up our sleeves and work side-by-side with our rural places to improve health outcomes, support our state’s small businesses, and get more rural students connected to affordable broadband.

Let’s work together and show the state why rural counts. Let’s start at Rural Day on May 29.

Patrick Woodie is president and CEO of the N.C. Rural Center.