Suzanne Julian is a UNC-Chapel Hill graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Public Administration. She is currently working with the STEP leadership team in Pamlico County as part of the Carolina Economic Revitalization Corps program.
I’m pleased to report more good news from Pamlico County! Last Friday, N.C. Department of Commerce secretary Keith Crisco announced that Pamlico County has been selected to participate in the 21st Century Communities Program. Pamlico, along with Jones, Stokes, and Cleveland Counties, will be joining the 31 counties across the state that have already received the 21st Century Communities designation. Other counties that are currently active in the two-year planning phase of the program include Alexander, Camden, Clay, Nash, and Scotland.
The 21st Century Communities Program is designed to help low-capacity/high-potential communities develop and implement successful economic development strategies. Participation in the program brings with it two years of planning support from economic developers in the Department of Commerce. The program helps communities assess their economic needs and assets, develop a comprehensive plan, and mobilize resources to implement the plan. Although the 21st Century Communities designation doesn’t include any direct financial assistance, the program works with its many partners to help participating communities access resources. The program’s list of partners includes the Golden LEAF Foundation, the Rural Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the N.C. Partnership for Children, UNC’s School of Government, regional partnerships, and many state government agencies. Although the designation itself is not a grant, participation in the program can open doors for funding from other sources. For instance, the designation generates extra points on some government grant applications, and the many funders recognize selection for the program as an indication of a county’s potential for success.
The program focuses on creating a good match between a community and the economic development strategies it pursues; it helps communities choose strategies that work well with their unique character, needs, and strengths. To this end, the program will kick off with a “reconnaissance visit”: staff members from the Commerce Department will come to Pamlico County to interview citizens and leaders here. Researchers and policy analysts will create a report on economic indicators and other data for the area that will help guide the planning process. Since Pamlico County has already gone through an extensive planning process through its participation in the Rural Center’s STEP program, the 21st Century Communities Program here will aim to build on and implement the planning work that has already been done.
Like STEP, the 21st Century Communities Program focuses on not just helping communities develop economically, but on helping them build the tools and capacity they need to continue to develop. The emphasis is on education, a skilled workforce, well-trained leadership, a robust business climate, and a strategy that matches the county’s character. The program’s insistence on guidance and on support, rather than on direct handouts, parallels what seems to be a growing trend for resource providers (both funders and non-funders): interaction, a hands-on approach, and active support focused on building skills and long-term capacity. Funders are less and less interested, it seems, in simply providing a round or two of money, and are more and more interested in providing lasting investments in community capacity.