The event, hosted by U.S. Representatives Larry Kissell and Mike McIntyre, was designed as a “Federal Resources Summit,” to put local leaders in touch with potential funding sources for their economic development and infrastructure projects.
Richmond County Board of Commissioners Chairman Kenneth Robinette described the meeting as a chance to build contacts, and said the opportunity meet with the people you ask for money from offers a chance “to feel more comfortable calling them.”
One project to be potentially funded in the county is the Wastewater Regionalization Project between the City of Rockingham and the Town of Ellerbe.
The project has already received funding from the GoldenLEAF Foundation and the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, and would open the Highway 220 corridor between the two municipalities for industrial development.
“I’ve been very encouraged (with the input I received on the wastewater regionalization project),” Robinette said. “It’s nice to be in contact with other grant resources.”
Robinette discussed the project with USDA Rural Development State Coordinator Randall Gore, Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin and Rockingham City Manager Monty Crump, according to McLaurin.
McLaurin called the meeting “very beneficial,” and said Gore was “extremely receptive” to the idea of offering assistance.
Even so, he said there are interpretation issues to iron out to receive assistance with the project from the USDA.
“That’s an important project to economic growth in Richmond County, and it was very beneficial to have the opportunity to look (Gore) in the eyes and speak with him about it,” McLaurin said. “If you don’t have a chance like this, oftentimes you end up playing phone tag, but when you can look them in the eye and speak with them about your situation, it’s to your advantage.”
McLaurin thanked Kissell and McIntyre for hosting the event as well in his statement, which was echoed by Robinette.
“This is just one example of how Congressman Kissell is working very hard for our district, and doing what he said he would do,” Robinette said. “He’s really gone against the grain in many ways, and he’s showing that what he’s doing is working ... I appreciate that as a county official and as a citizen.”
Richmond County was represented by Robinette, McLaurin, Crump, Dobbins Heights Mayor Antonio Blue and Hoffman Councilman Daniel Kelly.
Richmond Community College President Dr. Sharon Morrissey served as a moderator for the panel of speakers. The panel included the two Congressmen, N.C. Rural Economic Development Center President Billy Ray Hall, keynote speaker United States Department of Agriculture Rural Business Administrator Judy Canales and others representing various federal and state agencies that either write grants or distribute grant-funding.
Represented at the summit were officials from Scotland, Anson, Montgomery, Robeson, Bladen and Columbus counties.
During their addresses, both Kissell and McIntyre pointed out their opposition to free trade agreements that have depleted traditional industries such as furniture and textiles manufacturing in the state.
“... these counties were already hurting,” before the national economy took a downturn, Kissell said at one point, saying there are plenty of places to lay the blame.
“Whether it’s trade deals that lost so many jobs, or things that happened on Wall Street, but we’re looking for the solutions to our problems,” Kissell continued. “... Success breeds success, and if we pull together we can be successful.”
McIntyre alluded to “increasing poverty and unemployment, especially in North Carolina,” in his address.
“These trade agreements, which I have never supported, have done nothing but suck the life out of the jobs we traditionally had in our area,” he said. “... We realize the problems have been severe, and we’re not waiting, we’re getting to work right now on them, even before the Christmas holidays.”
Afterwards, Kissell spoke to the importance of infrastructure projects like the wastewater regionalization project in Richmond County to the Eighth District and other rural areas.
“Wastewater, and water itself, are core ingredients of having a good base to build economic development on,” Kissell said. “There is money available, and that’s what this Summit is all about, for these commissioners to be able to talk to someone, and find out if you have these needs, how can we put you in contact with someone that can help you.”
He said he was pleased by the turnout for the event, which drew between 150 and 200 people to Hanger #1 at the Laurinburg-Maxton Airport Terminal.
“To have the people that came out today, they obviously care about their communities and want to do the right thing - sometimes that’s only a matter of knowing what the right thing is,” Kissell said. “We want to present as much information as possible. We’re not satisfied just to sit back and watch things develop, we want to be aggressive in making these opportunities available, and we appreciate all the folks who came down from Washington to participate.”
“I am thrilled with the turnout we’ve had today,” McIntyre said at the Summit. “It shows the deep desire and commitment that our community leaders, elected officials, Chamber (of Commerce) representatives and business leaders all have to creating a strong economic atmosphere for jobs and for infrastructure development to support those jobs.”
A packet handed out to attendees of the event had on its front page the October 2009 unemployment rates of the seven counties represented, showing Robeson County had the group’s lowest rate at 11.8 over the month.
Each of the other counties experienced at least 12 percent unemployment over the month, with Scotland County having the highest rate in the group and state at 17.2 percent.
Richmond County had 14.2 percent unemployment in October 2009.
In her keynote address, Canales quoted President Obama in saying there is no “silver bullet,” or one action or piece of legislation, to solve the economic challenges of rural America, but making grant-funding available for projects can work toward it.
“This work is not easy, and it’s not the most glamorous work, like I said, we all have to put our boots on to get this done,” she said.
She described a complex matrix of “regional collaboration, strategic partners and community assessments,” working together to meet the goal of repopulating rural areas, making them self-sustaining and to “encourage and facilitate discussion.”
N.C. Rural Economic Development Center President Billy Ray Hall described it as “aggressive partnership” in his remarks.
Canales also said opening rural credit markets will be central to economic development, illustrating the programs the USDA has in place to facilitate lending for development.
“We have to push, cattle-prod, incite ... to bring credit to rural areas,” she said. “We cannot wait, and there’s no need to. We’ve got the tools and resources now, so we have to open up communication with leaders so we can find out what those needs are, and we need the support of the federal government for those leaders so we can unloosen, untie, the bind we have gotten ourselves into.”
Staff Writer Philip D. Brown can be reached at (910) 997-3111 ext. 32, or by e-mail at email@example.com.