It has been in the public eye only two days, but already Gov. Roy Cooper’s “Hometown Strong” initiative has struck an enthusiastic chord in the state’s rural counties, including Richmond.
On Thursday, Cooper said the initiative — which worked behind the scenes for a month before its public reveal — would “listen to local leaders and make sure they’re getting the support they need” from the state to create economic growth.
On Friday, representatives of 27 rural towns and counties called Raleigh to accept that support, said Pryor Gibson, a former Anson County state representative and aide to Gov. Beverly Perdue whom Cooper chose to co-lead the effort.
“What we’re doing is we’re saying, ‘We’re from Raleigh, and we’re here to get out of your way,’” Gibson said of the initiative. “The governor has charged us with turning the equation upside down,” helping communities to help one another rather than issuing state mandates.
“This is a big experiment,” Gibson said — something no other state is doing. The governor “has been very clear, completely clear, crystal clear” that the initiative’s remit is to listen and coordinate among communities and state agencies, not “pretending to have all the answers.”
“We know the great majority of (economic development is) happening at the local level,” Gibson said. Local people “know what the problems are,” he said, conveying the approach he would make to those leaders:
“Which (projects) do you need state resources on?”
Gibson said the initiative already had collected a “pool” of data that showed myriad successes at local levels. He also pinpointed two areas where Tier 1 counties — the state’s poorest, including Richmond and Anson — could use more coordinated efforts and resources:
Broadband availability and underemployment.
The first, he said, would help provide better health care in far-flung small towns by allowing small clinics to connect to larger medical providers. Healthy people make better workers.
The second, he said, was the opposite of what a lot of people say about small towns: They need jobs that require more education, not just rote work. Such positions bring with them higher pay and more job satisfaction.
State Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Richmond, welcomed the governor’s announcement. For one thing, he said Friday, it showed Cooper was willing to take off his “partisan hat” to work on issues McInnis has championed.
“Based on who (Cooper) has chosen to lead the effort,” McInnis said, referring to Gibson, “I believe that rural North Carolina will have another seat at the table.”
One of the things McInnis would like to see is a revamping of the tier system, which divides counties into groups by their degrees of prosperity, with such counties as Wake and Mecklenburg on the top (Tier 3) and Richmond and Anson on the bottom (Tier 1).
Tier 3 counties grab the lion’s share of incentive money for economic development, McInnis said, when such money might be better spent in harder-pressed areas.
“We have made a lot of our own luck through the hard work of our local elected officials and their employees,” McInnis said, pointing to recent economic expansion in Richmond County. “But many Tier 1 counties are not so fortunate” and could benefit from good examples.
Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond, also lauded the governor’s effort.
“We should have a good conduit there to help with economic development,” he said, also noting Gibson’s familiarity with Anson and Richmond counties.
“I’m optimistic about this part of the state,” Goodman said, but “part of the problem, for us, is you can’t make companies go where they don’t want to go.”
Where they often want to go, Goodman said, is metro areas that have more resources.
But, Goodman said, Gov. Cooper “is from rural North Carolina, … so I think he’s very aware of the problems we face” — the lack of broadband capability, an appropriately educated workforce and a network of roads on which to deliver goods.
Goodman, chairman of the pro-business Main Street Democrats Caucus, said the new effort is “one more arrow in the quiver.”
Former Rockingham mayor and state Sen. Gene McLaurin — whom Cooper recently appointed to the board of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina — also saw potential in the governor’s initiative.
“I think it sends a real strong message that Gov. Cooper is very serious about rural economic development,” McLaurin said. “We’ve got a lot of assets in our rural counties.
“I’ve had recent conversations and meetings with Gov. Cooper, as well as Pryor Gibson …
“Everyone realizes this is not an overnight or quick fix, but it will allow us to focus on the building blocks that can create economic progress in all of North Carolina, not just our larger cities.”
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]