In the state of North Carolina (NC), 80 out of 100 counties are rural. In fact, among the 10 most populous states, NC has the largest proportion of individuals living in rural areas, ranking second only to Texas. Despite the sizeable rural population, factors that drive density and growth in communities are not completely present in the rural areas of the state. This fact is further compounded by a study recently conducted by the The Carolina Population Center showcasing that 41 percent of North Carolina towns have shown a decline in population with another 192 municipalities displaying stagnant growth. This growth is at a rate that is slower than the state’s average of 6.4 percent. The data from the study also showed that the northeast corner of the state has been the hardest hit by slow growth and this is where a large concentration of rural communities lie.
In light of these statistics, a new initiative by Governor Roy Cooper is positioned to provide assistance to the rural areas of the state. Hometown Strong was launched in February 2018 and described as an initiative that will restructure the state government’s approach to addressing the needs of NC’s rural communities. The purpose of Hometown Strong is to create a partnership between state agencies and local leaders for rural communities. Through the leveraging of state and local resources, the initiative’s goals are to identify ongoing projects and community needs, implement plans to boost the economy, improve infrastructure, and strengthen NC towns.
While the initiative will not include any new state funding, it will work to draw upon existing resources from a broad range of partners including state, federal, nonprofit and philanthropic agencies/organizations. The true programmatic aim is to combine the different resources and initiatives that have been launched over the years to help rural NC under one coordinated effort. The initiative is currently led by a small program team that will work with local officials to identify projects and assist local governments with staffing issues. This team includes former N.C. Representative Pryor Gibson of Wadesboro, NC and attorney Mary Penny Kelley of Spring Hope, NC, a former assistant attorney general with the N.C. Department of Justice.
In April, the initiative announced its six initial partnerships with the following counties: Burke, Edgecombe, Lenoir, Madison, Pasquotank, and Robeson. Counties were chosen based on their level of clarity in ideas they wanted to execute. Since the announcement, Governor Cooper and his team are planning to conduct a number of visits in these areas to discuss prominent issues and host roundtable discussions on ways to leverage the resources of the state government. The launch of Hometown Strong took place in Madison County, where Governor Cooper led a delegation of state officials on a two-day tour of the county. Madison was chosen as a part of the initiative because of their work with an advanced manufacturing lab located in Madison High School, their good level of communication with businesses in the area, and high level of needs, particularly in relation to broadband internet access.
At this point, the Hometown Strong team is continuing to plan visits to the counties chosen. All of the participants will come together for a meeting that is tentatively planned for early June. As the initiative continues to unfold, it will be exciting to see how Governor Cooper and his team are able to provide assistance to rural NC and connect these counties with the resources needed to achieve their individual goals.
Ashley Tucker is a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill with dual degrees – a Master of Public Administration and a Master of City & Regional Planning. She was a Community Revitalization Fellow with the Development Finance Initiative during her graduate school career.