Though the definition of a rural county has evolved as the state has changed, the mission of the Rural Center has never wavered. It has always been about rural people and rural places. What the Rural Center does today is rooted in the Center’s history.
The NC Rural Center opened its doors in 1987, with the vision of an improved quality of life for all rural North Carolinians. In the 1990s, we developed a roadmap of strategies addressing challenges facing rural communities. Through sound strategies and critical advocacy, we bring the most current thinking and approaches to issues that have long been at the heart our work at the Rural Center. Today, we continue this work through Rural Counts: 10 Strategies for Rural North Carolina’s Future.
As we celebrate three decades, we take time to reflect on the achievements, contributions, struggles, and progress of the Rural Center and the communities around our state that we serve.
Thirty Years of Building Vibrant Rural Communities
The educational pipeline of pre-K to 16+ is at the top of the list of challenges and opportunities for many rural community leaders across the state. In the 1980s and 1990s, the minimum standard against which we measured was a high-school diploma. In 2005, we began a focus on dropout prevention through our “Gaining a Foothold” initiative. Today, our primary focus is setting up rural students for postsecondary success.
Water and sewer infrastructure has always been at the heart of the Rural Center’s body of work. In 1998, we were at the forefront of advocacy, helping pass the Clean Water Bond. We published the Water 2030 report in 2003, recognizing that infrastructure is necessary to the long-term advancement of our rural communities. Our investments and efforts have served millions of rural water and sewer customers and made a huge amount of progress in the lives of our rural citizens. But even today, $15 billion is needed to address the upkeep and maintenance of our state’s existing water and sewer infrastructure.
Rural health is a core issue for every rural community. The availability of quality rural health services are integral to attracting and retaining a healthy and productive rural business workforce. In 2009, we unveiled the “Rural Hope” program with funding from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, Golden LEAF Foundation, Appalachian Regional Commission, and USDA Rural Development. As a result of this successful collaborative effort, $17 million was invested into various healthcare facilities in rural places across the state. This investment continues to be a funding focus of Golden LEAF and the Building Reuse Program even today.
North Carolina lost 380,000 manufacturing jobs between 1987 and 2015, changing the rural economy landscape dramatically. However, since 2012, the state has seen a net increase of nearly 20,000 new manufacturing jobs. Although the nature of the work has changed dramatically, the sector continues to pay high wages. Our Manufacturing Future Report released in 2013 outlined a focus on advanced and food-based manufacturing for rural communities. Today, we continue to update and advocate for policy framework presented in this report.
In 2017 we launched Rural Day, a statewide event that highlights issues facing rural communities, promotes advocacy, and provides crucial networking opportunities with state leaders and other rural champions. The inaugural event brought over 300 people to Raleigh from 70 rural counties to remind state leadership and ourselves that #RuralCounts. This inspirational event will be held each year in May.
Communities of faith are essential partners in finding innovative solutions to challenges facing our rural communities. In the 1990s, we launched the Faith Partnerships Initiative to support increased child care options for families in rural areas. Today, thanks to a five-year grant from the Duke Endowment, our Faith in Rural Communities initiative partners with Methodist churches to assess opportunities for community engagement. Some of these congregations will receive training to develop local outreach projects that support community growth and nurture laity and pastoral leadership in rural communities.
North Carolina ranks second in the nation of states with the most small towns with populations of less than 10,000. In the spring of 2006, we introduced the STEP program to help individual small towns reinvigorate their economies. Much has evolved over the years, and today we are working with 14 small towns to cultivate small business and entrepreneurial development and we have seeded locally led loan funds in each of those rural community.
The Rural Center has always stepped up as a leader in North Carolina’s economic recovery, and we have been there for the long road of recovery from many natural disasters. In addition to leading the recovery efforts after Hurricanes Fran and Floyd, we served as headquarters for the Hurricane Floyd Redevelopment Center in 1999. Following record floods in Western NC in 2005, we led a $5 million initiative to redevelop commercial properties and repair public infrastructure. On the other end of the natural disaster spectrum, we collaborated with partners to respond to the drought crisis in 2008. More recently, with the help of BB&T, Wells Fargo, North Carolina Electric Cooperatives, and the Golden LEAF Foundation, we led the charge to help small businesses get back on their feet after Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Small Business Development
The Rural Center’s Small Business Credit Initiative builds upon a long history of lending and working in partnership with banks, credit unions, and community development financial institutions in North Carolina. In 1994, we launched the Capital Access Program (CAP), the second such program in the nation, which enabled over $100 million in lending from the mid-90’s through the late 2000’s. Again in 2011, we had a large impact on small businesses by re-launching CAP, followed by the Loan Participation Program and the Fund of Funds Program. We have made over 780 loans, totaling $600 million, and resulting in 12,000 jobs created or retained.
We firmly believe microenterprise development can lead to stronger individuals, families, and communities in rural places across North Carolina. In 1989, the Rural Center launched the Microenterprise Loan Program to encourage self-employment and small-business growth. What began as an experiment is now one of our longest standing programs. In 2017, the Rural Center’s Board of Directors expanded our microlending and direct lending into a new Community Development Financial Institution to meet the growing market need of entrepreneurs and small-business owners unable to access small loans from traditional lenders.
Food and Agriculture
The Rural Center is committed to supporting our farmers and bringing healthy foods to the tables of all North Carolinians. In 1990, The Rural Center Farmers Market Coupon program enabled low-income mothers and children to buy fresh produce and helped small farmers to grow their markets. Today, our Rural Food Business Assistance Project supports current and aspiring entrepreneurs that are farmers, value-added processors, and food service businesses in order to stimulate successful and thriving agribusinesses across rural North Carolina.
The future of rural North Carolina resides in the hands of leaders who can bring about positive change, especially during the most challenging economic times. The Rural Center launched the Rural Economic Development Institute in 1989, and over the years has trained nearly 1,200 leaders from local government, education, small business, the faith community, and a variety of other backgrounds. In 2017, we expanded our leadership development efforts with Homegrown Leaders, this is a regional leadership training program for community-minded people working or living in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon, or Swain counties. Leadership is critically important to rural communities and the Rural Center is committed to identifying and training individuals who will make an impact.