“You can pretend to care, but you can’t pretend to be there,” is advice I received early in my career and a mantra I still carry today. On day one as Golden LEAF President I set a goal to visit all 100 counties. With a pandemic slowing in-person visits, it took a little over two years to get there, but I am proud to share that I reached my goal on June 30, 2022.
When I set this goal I knew we needed to define what we would mean by a visit in each county. It certainly would not count if we just stopped at the local convenience store and got a pack of nabs. Or even if we attended a groundbreaking or ribbon cutting for a Golden LEAF-funded project. It had to be a meeting of substance with an organization based in the county. This meant sitting down with a local economic development corporation, local elected officials, college, university, or community college presidents, healthcare entities, and community development organizations. With each visit, my focus was to listen and learn as much as possible.
The 100 county tour helped me become more familiar with the opportunities and challenges of western, central, and eastern North Carolina. Reading reports and studies or having a virtual meeting provides a certain insight into a community, but physically being at the place where it all happens provides a more complete picture and critical context. In one county, we heard about the challenge to develop more land for retail and industrial development, but then were able to take a driving tour with the Chair of the county commissioners and see the opportunity with land the county had recently acquired. At a private college in another county, we were able to hear about adapting to a post-COVID world and then talk with some Golden LEAF Scholars who were beginning their college journey in a classroom for the first time in years.
As I reflect on the conversations had in each county, I am energized about the future for rural North Carolina.
Throughout North Carolina, leaders at all levels are working to move their communities forward. County managers, economic development directors, community college presidents, university chancellors, and local elected officials are finding innovative solutions to complex challenges. Continuing to foster this talent pool and grow more rural leaders is key to long-term success and sustainability.
I never shy away from an opportunity to let people know about the Golden LEAF Scholarship opportunities for students in rural areas, and these visits were no different. In addition, I was proud to share about the Golden LEAF Scholarship Rural Internship Initiative, launched earlier this summer, which provides a paid internship opportunity for Golden LEAF Scholars to return to their rural community and gain experience at a business, non-profit, or governmental entity aligned with their career interests. Golden LEAF will continue to work with rural communities to address the need for talent.
In each county, I was interested to learn how the local higher education institution plays a role as a catalyst for economic opportunity and collaboration. All 100 counties are served by North Carolina’s community colleges, UNC System universities, and independent colleges and universities. And yet in each county, each responds to the unique needs of their community. These institutions, especially in more economically distressed areas, have the grit and determination to find the resources and use the resources they have to advance their community.
Through our recent strategic planning process, we heard about the need for more ready sites for industrial development and many county visits confirmed this need. I was pleased to see so many industrial sites with parking lots full of cars and hear from local developers about their strategies to identify their next site to attract industry.
All of the communities I visited, whether rural or not, recognized the importance of agriculture to our state’s economy. With a strong ornamental agriculture base in the west and food crops in the east, North Carolina has a significant and diverse agricultural economy. Many communities are working on agriculture education and building the talent pool of future agriculture leaders. Others are looking for ways to enhance agribusiness opportunities centered around value-added agriculture. All of the communities are aware of the economic boon the industry brings to our state and the importance of agriculture continuing to thrive in North Carolina.
North Carolina has many stories of success and making things happen. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to meet with so many great North Carolinians building the economy through strategy, grit, talent, and determination. I will take this knowledge and build on it as we all work together to move the economic needle in North Carolina. Completing this tour does not mean we’re done traveling, but only just beginning. I look forward to seeing you in your community, soon!