Parts of North Carolina are growing rapidly. Other areas, usually but not always “rural,” are stagnant or worse. What can be done to ease the economic challenges facing places that aren’t doing so great?
First, we must accept the obvious — if there were some easy cure to what ails rural North Carolina, then state and local government officials and community leaders would have acted long ago. There isn’t, which is why we’ve been struggling to figure out what to do for many years.
Rural areas typically are associated with farming, and there certainly is money to be made in agriculture. It’s just that economies of scale apply in agriculture, meaning bigger is more efficient, thus making it difficult for small-scale operators of traditional farming to prosper. Agricultural productivity also is ever-increasing — farmers over time continue to get higher yields with fewer inputs, including labor.
Agriculture will, of course, remain a key part of many community’s economies, but it’s difficult to see how it can fuel the consistent job growth needed to get a stagnant area’s economy out of neutral.
At least in a North Carolina context, rural doesn’t just mean farming. Towns both large and small are interspersed every 10 or 20 miles among those fields. And the “rural” economic development challenge is really about keeping these towns vibrant.
One solution that’s been suggested — often — is tourism.
There are a couple of problems with tourism as an economic development tool. To paraphrase “The Incredibles,” if everyone is special, no one is. While you may think that your town has a lot to offer and is a great place to visit, lots of people in the next county over, and the counties beyond that, think the same thing about their communities. And while these places may have their own charms, they all can’t be big tourist draws.
Tourism is also seasonal and cyclical. There is always an offseason. And when the economy tanks, the first thing that people cut back on are road trips.
The combination of retail, hotel, and food service jobs that make up the tourism industry are a great way for young adults to earn some money while gaining extremely valuable job experience. But “some money” is the key term, as tourism-related jobs tend to rest at the bottom of the pay scale. Indeed, the low-paying nature of tourism-industry jobs is generating some concerns in Asheville, which has based much of its local revival on tourism.
At times, a variety of massive economic development schemes have been tried to invigorate towns and even regions. The results typically have been disappointing at best. There’s nothing more soul-crushing for an area than having the next big thing turn out to be a small thing or even a complete bust, like the Global TransPark in Kinston or the Randy Parton Theatre in Roanoke Rapids.
So what to do? Every community is unique, so one-size fits all remedies aren’t available. There are some constants. though.
Good government matters, meaning providing basic services efficiently. So does avoiding the opposite of good government. Nothing turns off potential investors in an area like corruption, dysfunction, or red tape.
Transportation — which transcends county lines or city limits — is another part of the solution. Getting to and through the state’s big cities is critical to rural areas. Aside from shopping and cultural attractions, the state’s cities also contain its major airports. You must be able to get from here to there.
Most of all, your community must be the best it can be, even if it can’t keep up with Charlotte and Raleigh in income or population growth.
Michael Lowrey is a contributor to Carolina Journal.