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Guest columnist: Let’s celebrate our state’s rural life

By Patrick Woodie

What comes to mind when you hear the word “rural?”

For some, the word evokes images of pastoral landscapes, rustic barns, the smells of home cooking, curing tobacco, the sounds of lapping waves and square dance callers.

For others, the idea of rural is dominated by (often inaccurate) ideas of homogenous cultures, insular thinking and stubborn competition with an urban world of unceasing “progress.”

At the NC Rural Center, “rural” calls to mind something different — visions of vibrant small towns, led by driven business owners who invest in their local economies. It is mountaintops with high-speed internet connectivity. It is innovative health care facilities, bringing state-of-the-art technology and top-of-the-field service providers to underserved areas.

While these visions are realities in many of our rural communities, they are still elusive dreams for others. Regardless of where we live in rural North Carolina, we must work closely together to lift up the success stories we see, figure out how to replicate and scale those successes and empower our leaders to make innovation a quality of every rural community.

The changing demographics of our state make such rural cooperation imperative.

For example, the 19 counties in the northeastern corner of our state are represented by 17 members of the General Assembly. Mecklenburg County alone has the same number of representatives — and this gap will only become more pronounced after the 2020 census. We want to emphasize that population growth in our urban areas is not a bad thing. It is wonderful that people from around the world want to call North Carolina home. What this does mean, though, is that rural people must now speak with a united voice as never before if we are to call attention to the policy issues that matter most to us.

On March 26, more than 600 rural advocates from more than 80 counties will convene in Raleigh for our third-annual Rural Day, our chance to speak together to our state leaders with a unified rural voice. We will hear from former Ohio Gov. John Kaisch on how his state expanded health coverage for more of its citizens and stemmed a vexing statewide opioid crisis. We will also hear from Gov. Roy Cooper, Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore about their visions for the future of rural N.C.

The big issues we will talk about in Raleigh — broadband, health and small business development — are not just rural issues. They are North Carolina issues. They are great challenges, but no greater than we have faced before.

The way we address these issues will be a wonderful opportunity to show this state that rural people are entrepreneurial. We are innovative.

And we are committed to each other and our future. With those values, and our rural resolve, there is no problem we cannot face together.

Patrick Woodie is president of the NC Rural Center, which works to improve the quality of life for the state’s rural areas.

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