Lessons learned over a decade serving rural NC: Op-Ed by Dan Gerlach, Golden LEAF President

Published by WRAL CBC Opinion March 24, 2018

North Carolina has no shortage of public and private sector concern and sincere interest in helping rural North Carolina move forward.   While focusing on rural issues has become a popular theme, both in theory and in action, the overarching result of media, policy and business interest in rural communities ultimately helps.

As president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, an organization directed by a court order, law, and charter to help transform the economy of rural, tobacco-dependent, economically distressed areas of our state almost 20 years ago, I’m often asked what we are doing and what needs to be done to fulfill that awesome mission.

On March 1, we reported to the Governor and General Assembly that we provided $112 million to communities through 134 grants across North Carolina in 2017.   About half of that money will flow to North Carolina communities recovering from the effects of Hurricane Matthew, as the General Assembly provided funds for us to award and oversee in an efficient, effective manner.

The fruits of these grants will become apparent in months and years to come.  In 2017, our grantees reported that our assistance facilitated the creation of over 2,000 jobs and $84 million in payroll, and over $1 billion in capital investment.  These numbers are not speculative – but actual data.

So what is needed now for rural North Carolina?  What lessons have we learned?

Be prepared with places  – Rural communities simply do not have the same number of opportunities for companies to relocate or expand.   Golden LEAF committed to help with water, sewer and roads for megasites in rural areas, before any specific job creation project was known.  Because we were more prepared for development, companies like Clearwater Paper in Cleveland County and Triangle Tyre in Edgecombe County had confidence to announce plans to locate facilities and bring a combined 980 jobs to rural communities.   Commitments in Triad megasites helped gain the strong interest of Toyota-Mazda in Randolph County, and we are prepared for the next opportunity.

Be prepared with people – Private business leaders stress that access to a quality workforce is first on the list of priorities.   Rural areas don’t have as large a labor pool as urban areas, so that rural labor pool has to be high quality, both skilled and educated.   Golden LEAF has put millions into investments in our public schools for digital learning and STEM programming, and into our community colleges and universities for direct workforce development.   These investments have helped with better test scores, more challenging coursework, and higher completion rates at all levels.   We need to keep our foot on the gas to make sure all children – and adults – are fully prepared to participate in the modern economy.

Be prepared with collaboration – Golden LEAF can and has done much to help further its mission, but we have not done this alone.   We have built local voices, those closest to the action, yet we are also working with the state, federal and private philanthropy to co-invest, to share our lessons learned about what works and what does not.   For instance, North Carolina has been widely recognized for its broadband fiber network serving our schools, colleges, hospitals and libraries, built through a $24 million Golden LEAF grant that helped access $80 million in federal funds.  In 2007, in conjunction with SAS Institute founder Dr. Jim Goodnight, we began funding computers and other devices to bring digital learning to the state’s public schools.   These grants helped inform the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan almost 10 years later.

Be prepared with connections – North Carolina takes pride in our diverse agriculture, and we have to do more to ensure that value stays here.   Golden LEAF leveraged the state’s investment in a Food Processing Innovation Center in Kannapolis that will provide manufacturers the chance to try out new products and techniques, and work with our farmers on uses for what we grow and raise.

Likewise, we invested $10 million in Vidant Medical’s new Cancer Center in Greenville.  Beyond improving the detection and treatment in the state’s region with the highest rate of cancer mortality, this grant gave Vidant the stability to make crucial investments in its regional hospitals in Bertie, Chowan, Duplin, and Edgecombe counties.  Connections are critical.

Be prepared with flexibility – The urban-rural divide.  Tiers.  Incentives.  Sometimes we fixate on ways to impose order on complicated situations, and then try to figure out even more complex ways to overcome the false order.  This is unproductive and does not move communities forward.  North Carolina urban and rural areas are more tied together than in virtually other state, and artificial political lines do not reflect economic reality.  The business environment depends on both long-term stability and short-term flexibility.

We know that some areas of the state are doing better than others and applaud our state leaders who – for 20 years – have recognized that challenge and supported comprehensive efforts to improve the playing field statewide.  The Golden LEAF Foundation pledges to support this vision by continuing to do our part to help rural areas grow and prosper.

Dan Gerlach has served as president of the Golden LEAF Foundation since October 2008

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