Alexander Jones: Rural NC has chance at revitalization

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 31, 2021

By Alexander H. Jones

The rural-urban divergence in North Carolina has become so acute that it turned one of the most right-wing politicians in the state into one of the most left-wing.

Six years ago, promoting a scheme to redistribute sales tax money from urban counties to rural ones, ultra-conservative Senator Harry Brown declared that our state had fractured into “two North Carolinas.” He protested too much; one of Brown’s other preoccupations had been removing the blind and the aged from the Medicaid roles. But for all its insincerity, the charge that our state faces growing inequality is beyond dispute.

In the past 20 years, and as the latest Census figures confirmed, nearly all of the economic and population growth in the state has occurred in the Piedmont urban crescent. Resort towns on the coast and in the mountains have also enjoyed some gains, but that was mostly in the low-paying hospitality industry. The true rural counties, by contrast, have gotten almost nothing. In Scotland County in the Sandhills, child poverty is 49%. Fifty-one counties lost population over the last decade.

Some of this was likely inevitable. After all, urbanization is a process fundamental to the development of modern societies. Our former colonial overlord, England, began shifting from a rural nation to an urban one dominated by London in the days of Queen Elizabeth I. Throughout the world and throughout America, economic activity is shifting into areas with denser concentrations of talent and labor supply. So-called “agglomeration effects” are a powerful force in the knowledge economy.

But rural North Carolina may just catch a break. Though agglomeration has been the ruling dynamic of economic growth, the pandemic may have shifted workers’ preferences to the point where employers may have to adjust their practices. Working families have moved in large numbers to places like Montana and Idaho in search of cheaper housing and a more relaxed pace of life. Many workers have wanted to live in rural areas but could not find jobs there and had to move to the cities for work. With telecommuting now ubiquitous, rural North Carolina could feasibly start attracting new residents for the first time in at least a generation.

To make that happen, however, North Carolina policymakers should avoid spurious fads and opt for a strategy that builds upon our state’s economic history. High-priced economic development “experts” have been hawking a theory of the “creative class” for decades — and too many policymakers have fallen under their spell. It doesn’t work to try to make every town into a facsimile of Brooklyn and Silverlake (or Asheville). Instead, strategies for developing the rural economy should draw on the incumbent industrial legacies that remain despite a generation of atrophy.

North Carolina still has a large manufacturing economy and an intertwined system of agricultural production and food processing. Despite an extraordinary decline, numerous North Carolinians still work in textile production today. Auto parts manufacturing has become an economic driver. In Research Triangle Park, two of the brightest stars are agricultural biotech, drawing on our legacy as a farming state, and biomanufacturing, a high-tech adaptation of the production work we’ve been doing since the early 20th century. This isn’t about “getting back to our roots,” as Pat McCrory claimed he wanted to do (but didn’t). It’s about embracing new, modern and growing industries that North Carolina is uniquely suited to attract.

Policies like attracting a large auto plant or building smaller technology clusters could work to bring more in more people seeking a bucolic country lifestyle along with economic opportunity. We just barely missed out on the Toyota-Mazda plant, and the Indian automaker Mahindra is now reportedly considering an investment in western North Carolina. Triangle North, a tech cluster built in Granville County, has attracted several biotech firms. These are just a few ideas for rebuilding what Jacob Riis might have called “the other half” of struggling North Carolina. But in the wake of the pandemic, opportunity knocks.

Alexander H. Jones is a Policy Analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill.