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Glowing computer screens, florescent lights, spreadsheets, graphs and charts. That’s how many of us spend our day. In the age of instant information, we rely on numbers and statistics and reports to paint pictures of the world that lies beyond the view of our office window. And we’ve gotten good at it. We understand wage and employment trends and we can measure equality and growth.

Despite the growing capacity to track and measure and capture data, we’re still failing to understand the whole picture. This is especially true when it comes to understanding North Carolina’s small and rural communities. The voices from these communities are often absent from the problem solving table. As a result, decisions are typically made on behalf of these communities based off of our imperfect understanding of what their needs and wants truly are.

Last week I enjoyed some time outside of the office and beyond the Triangle. I walked on a wooden suspension bridge that spans the Tar River, traced the Greenway on a map that connected the River to downtown, and heard about the efforts to revitalize the downtown and local economy through attracting private capital and investing public dollars.

I was in Rocky Mount. I was excited to see the kinds of ways that grassroots leaders, city officials and planners and business owners are reimagining their city and with it the region.

Over the past few years, Edgecombe and Nash counties have received national notoriety for their crime rates and poverty levels. And while these counties face very real difficulties, the negative stories do not represent the reality of the entire region or the recent efforts that are beginning to bear fruit. Residents and local leaders are beginning to take back the narrative of their community.

Residents of Nash and Edgecombe have launched an effort to take their name back and tell their own stories of their communities, one that moves beyond statistics and fear toward collaboration and hope. In 2013, a citizen group, called The Positive Image Action Group, was formed to combat those negative images and to tell the story of their hometown from their perspective. Earlier this month, the group launched the first phase of a campaign to take back the name of the twin counties.

“Twin Counties – Here’s to Success” is a marketing campaign designed to highlight the positive and promising stories of citizens and business in Edgecombe and Nash County. Read More

Commentary

Mooresville writer John Deem has a rock-anthem-inspired take this morning on the proposals in the General Assembly to shift sales tax revenues from urban to rural areas of the state:

Sales tax redistribution: Money for nothing and your trips for free

By John Deem

Nearly all of the debate over Republican legislators’ proposals for redistributing sales taxes has focused on fairness.

Is “point of sale” distribution unfair to rural counties whose residents spend money in urban areas but whose communities get none of the local sales tax collected on those purchases?

Is the notion of suddenly shifting millions of dollars in revenue unfair to the urban areas that must cut services, raise taxes, or both, to make up for unexpected shortfalls?

As is often the case when politicians create a solution then look for a problem, the local sales tax fairness doctrine misses the point completely.

Rural residents travel to urban areas to spend money because that’s where the businesses are. Those businesses are in urban areas because that’s where the people are. Lots of them.

It costs money to build and maintain roads, water and sewer systems, and other infrastructure to accommodate not just residents, but also the throngs of workers, shoppers, sports fans and others outsiders drawn to an urban area’s employers, stores and attractions. So does providing adequate levels of police, fire and emergency medical services not just for the local citizenry, but for the visitors taking advantage of everything the big city has to offer (and that their own communities do not).

Local governments in urban areas outspend rural communities on a per capita basis not because they can, but because they have no choice. Large populations create unique challenges that can’t be addressed through “equal” funding, which can be a puzzling concept for some elected officials who rest on the simplicity of ideology rather than the complexity of reality.

The fact is, residents of rural communities already get the best of both worlds. They have access to urban amenities, usually within a reasonable drive, but have to deal with few, if any, of the challenges urban communities must wrangle with every day. Meeting those urban challenges costs money – money rural communities don’t have to spend and, therefore, should not siphon from their big city neighbors.

That’s only fair.

NC Budget and Tax Center

Yesterday, the Labor and Economic Division released October labor market data for all 100 counties.  The headline of the release was that the unemployment rate had dropped in 98 counties, or nearly all, in the past month.  It sounds like good news, and it is, but the new data also show that many parts of the state are still struggling mightily. As the Budget and Tax Center has noted before, you have to look deeper than the headline unemployment number to know whether employment prospects are actually improving.

Such a look behind the unemployment rate does show signs of labor markets improving year-over-year, primarily along the lines seen at the state and national level.  The number of unemployed people has declined since October 2013 in all counties and a majority of counties have seen gains in employment.

But it is not “mission accomplished” time yet. The October county data contain worrying signs that should not be glossed over.

The majority of counties have not caught up to pre-recession levels of employment. Employment prospects are still slow to emerge in many counties, particularly in the rural parts of the state. Sixty six counties have more unemployed people in October 2014 than they did in December 2007.

Even more concerning, roughly one-third of the counties registered declines in employment from October 2013 through October of this year. Beyond not having caught up to pre-recession employment, many parts of our state have taken a step back over the last year. Again, this troubling trend is most concentrated in rural counties. Read More

NC Budget and Tax Center

This is the 6th post of a Budget and Tax Center blog series on public services and programs that face cuts in the budget process or have been underfunded in past years. See the other posts here.

If the Senate budget passes this year, rural communities are going to be living through a nightmare. Despite promises by the McCrory administration to support economic development in rural North Carolina, the budget passed by the state Senate last week continues long-term disinvestment in the very initiatives that rural communities need in order to create jobs and grow their local economies.

For most of the past 30 years, the state’s primary actor in promoting economic development in the state’s 85 rural counties was the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center. Incorporated as a state-charted nonprofit in the late 1980s, the Rural Center used a mix of state funding and private fundraising to support a range of rural development work—everything from small town revitalization efforts and building rehabilitation grants, to small business lending and workforce training programs.

Over the past three years, however, the legislature has significantly reduced state investment in these important activities, undermining the state’s ability to promote job creation and economic revitalization in rural communities, many of which are still grappling with long-term decline in manufacturing. Even in the darkest period of the Great Recession in FY 2009, the state strongly supported these efforts by funding the Rural Center at $24 million. Unfortunately, the new legislative majority in 2011 significantly reduced support for rural development, cutting the Rural Center’s budget down to $16 million.

Then, in last year’s budget, the General Assembly eliminated all state funding for the Rural Center, instead opting to move some of these operations into a newly-created Division of Rural Economic Development in the N.C. Department of Commerce. As part of this move, the legislature reduced state funding for rural development even further, from $16 million in FY 2012-13 for the old Rural Center down to just $13.8 million in FY 2013-14 for the new Rural Development Division, of which $2.5 million was dedicated to a newly created Limited Resource Communities grant program intended to support economic development specifically in designated low-resource communities (e.g., the poorest 40 counties in the state). And the damage to rural development extends beyond the dollar reductions—the new division simply doesn’t carry out many of the specialized initiatives once conducted by the Rural Center: the state no longer supports small business lending in rural areas, targeted rural workforce development, or small town revitalization efforts.

Read More

NC Budget and Tax Center

Three counties get 56 percent of total incentive dollars

The money North Carolina spends on incentives to grow businesses and create jobs overwhelmingly favors the state’s most wealthy urban areas at the expense of the state’s most distressed—often rural—areas that need the most help, according to a report released yesterday by the Budget & Tax Center.

The state has five major incentive programs that were originally created to target business development resources to economically distressed and rural areas in the state. These programs are known as the OneNC Fund, the Job Development Investment Grant (JDIG), the Jobs Maintenance and Capital Fund, the Industrial Development Fund (IDF), and the IDF-Utility Fund. Unfortunately, the programs have not lived up to their promise and have invested more of these resources in the 20 wealthiest counties (designated Tier 3 counties by the Department of Commerce) than in the poorest 40 counties (designated Tier 1), the report finds.

Specifically, the report looks at the incentive awards made by these five programs from 2007 to 2013 and finds the following mismatches in investment:

North Carolina has awarded more than triple the amount of incentive dollars to projects in the wealthiest twenty counties than projects in the state’s 40 most distressed counties. If the state were truly targeting economic development resources to the regions that need it most, we would have spent more in the counties that are most distressed and need investment the most. Unfortunately, we see the opposite. The Department of Commerce has granted more than $840 million through its major incentive programs, and $592 million—more than 70 percent of the money—went to the state’s least distressed, Tier 3 counties.

The state‘s incentive projects promised to create or retain two jobs in the 20 wealthiest counties in the state for every one job promised to the 40 poorest counties. Given that the distressed Tier 1 counties are the most in need of jobs, effectively targeted incentive programs would attempt to deliver more jobs to these counties than to the wealthier Tier 3 counties. Yet the opposite is happening—the state has implemented incentive projects that promised to create almost 90,000 jobs in the state’s least distressed counties, more than double the 42,235 jobs promised to the most distressed Tier 1 counties.

Read More