In our cover story last week, The Smoky Mountain News wrote about the plight of the N.C. Rural Economic Develop-ment Center, which has distributed millions of dollars in state grants during the last couple of decades. The agency had come under criticism after a scathing audit revealed that it did not always assure that its grants met goals for job creation. The audit, coupled with a series of stories by The Raleigh News and Observer, revealed that many of the job creation goals were simply untrue that they were often low-wage. The newspaper articles also claimed that the center had a cozy relationship with some politicians.
The answer to these accusations was to cut off funding to the Rural Center rather than try and fix the woes. If you live in counties where those Rural Center grants played a vital role in economic development — which is true for all of us west of Buncombe — then you subsequently immediately question throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
“Who is going to be our advocate, and where are we going to find funds?” asked Ron Leatherwood, a member of Haywood County’s EDC and former board member at AdvantageWest. “Someone has got to fill that void.”
In addition to essentially shuttering the Rural Center, the state has cut its support of AdvantageWest from $1.2 million per year to $250,000 this year. It is slated to receive nothing from the state in 2014-15. Before the funding, the economic development entity that was under the state Department of Commerce served all of Western North Carolina and had a $2.2 million annual budget. Its board is meeting this month to map out a viable future, one it hopes includes a place in the state news economic development roadmap.
That new roadmap is pointing toward a new statewide economic development entity that will be private instead of public (which means little to no public oversight). And, in a move particularly telling for Western North Carolina, just one of the 39 members of the group that will draft the plan for the state’s new economic development efforts is from west of Interstate 77. That’s Jack Cecil of Biltmore Farms, a well-known businessman and WNC community leader, but not exactly a person grounded in the issues affecting the small communities in these mountains.
“If you don’t have a spokesman, then you are not at the table,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown.
Speaking at a meeting of southwestern North Carolina leaders a few weeks ago in Cherokee, Tony Almeida, the governor’s economic development adviser, promised not to forget WNC in particular and rural areas in general. The head of the state Department of Commerce, speaking in rural Roberson County (just south of Fayetteville along the Interestate 95 corridor) last week, made similar statements.
According to an article in The Fayetteville Observer, Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker had this to say to local business leaders: “The intent is to put more resources in rural North Carolina and not fewer. North Carolina has two major economic engines in Raleigh and Charlotte — the one and four fastest growing communities in the country. We are fortunate they are there. But ... we can’t grease those wheels at the expense of rural North Carolina.”
Then she urged the local leaders to work locally to imrpove her own list of the five tenets of economic health: health; education; economic development; arts, tourism and culture; and quality of life.
Well, that sounds nice, but leaders of her boss’s own party have passed legislation that makes shoring up those five “tenets” much more difficult.
• Health — The legislature chose not to expand Medicaid for more North Carolinians, a move that has dealt a terrible financial blow to rural hospitals.
• Education — The legislature has slashed money for teacher assistants, eliminated the extra pay for teachers who attain advanced degrees, and eliminated teacher tenure. Our schools are having to do more with less, and leaders in Raleigh somehow think they have helped our schools.
• Economic development — Well, as discussed earlier, we have virtually shut down the agency that the state’s 85 rural counties depended on for grants to improve infrastructure and aid business expansion.
So right now we have a lot of talk about how the changes in Raleigh will help rural North Carolina, how it will steer more money into economic development. Many of us have our doubts, but we have no choice now but to accept the change and get to work so the economic health of our region will improve.
Rep. Joe Sam Queen, D-Waynesville, was right on in his assessment of the changes: “Right now, we have a pig in a poke,” a promise that we are on the right track. A promise, though, won’t even get you a cup of coffee.