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Restoring vitality to North Carolina small towns

N.C. Small Towns Economic Prosperity Program




The following information describes the North Carolina Small Towns Economic Prosperity (NC STEP) program.


Our fourth group of NC STEP communities recently completed the planning phase of the program, with each town developing an economic development plan and implementation strategy.


Although NC STEP is not continuing in its past form and the Rural Center is not admitting another set of towns at this time, this information remains relevant for community leaders. It is our intent to create a similar community capacity-building and leadership program based on NC STEP as the Rural Center moves forward.
Thank you for your interest in this widely successful and innovative program.  If you have any questions, please contact:


Chilton Rogers

NC STEP Senior Coach
N.C. Rural Center
4021 Carya Drive
Raleigh, NC  27610


Across North Carolina, dozens of small towns have immersed themselves in the difficult but exciting work of shaping a new future. As participants in the Rural Center’s North Carolina Small Towns Economic Prosperity Program, these communities are seeking ways to overcome adversity by building on assets.


The N.C. Small Towns Economic Prosperity Program, or NC STEP, was launched in spring 2006 as the centerpiece of the Small Towns Initiative. While the initiative addresses broad issues affecting the growth and development of small towns, NC STEP focuses in on how to help individual small towns reinvigorate their economies.


It has three primary goals:

  • Support economic development in small towns adversely affected by structural changes in the economy or recent natural disasters.
  • Implement a comprehensive model of technical assistance and grantmaking to aid in revitalization efforts.
  • Provide information vital to the development of public policies that support long-term investment in the economic vitality of North Carolina’s small towns.


A four-step process

NC STEP incorporates four elements in helping towns achieve a new course.


Coaching. A community coach works closely with each town to provide guidance and recommendations, but the towns themselves determine their course of action.


Training. Through leadership training, skill-building workshops and information sharing, townspeople gain knowledge and skills that will serve their towns for years to come.


Planning. The planning process seeks the active participation of all elements of the community in developing an economic development strategy. This promotes widespread buy-in and builds teams for project implementation.


Grants. Planning and implementation grants give NC STEP communities a jump-start in carrying out their economic development strategy. Team members also are introduced to other funding opportunities from the Rural Center and elsewhere.


More specifically, each NC STEP site is eligible for:


Training scholarships. Towns receive scholarships that allow representatives to attend the Rural Economic Development Institute, a leadership development program of the Rural Center.


Coaching assistance. Towns are paired with community development coaches who work with leadership teams within the communities to identify critical needs and community assets, develop potential economic development initiatives, prioritize projects and seek out financial resources.


Planning grants. Each town receives a planning grant to use in the first phase of the process. The grants may be used for assessments, feasibility studies, coordination and other activities.


Project implementation grants. Towns are eligible to receive additional grants to implement priority projects developed through the NC STEP process. If competitive, they also receive priority consideration for other grants programs within the Rural Center during their participation in NC STEP.


Opportunities for further training and shared learning. STEP leadership team members attend regularly scheduled workshops to share project progress and receive additional information on strategies and tools. Training workshops include restoration strategies, futures planning, tools for measuring progress and sustainability strategies. Information workshops include “how to” sessions on specific issues facing small town demonstration sites, such as historic preservation, building reuse, physical infrastructure issues, financing mechanisms, funding strategies and grant resources. Sites are linked through a list serve. 


STEP communities

A total of 67 communities have joined the NC STEP program since its origin. New towns are selected for the program in even-numbered years. Read more about participating towns.


Selection process

NC STEP is designed for municipalities with fewer than 7,500 people, either within the state’s 85 rural counties or within urban counties defined as economically distressed by the N.C. Department of Commerce. Eligibility also is extended to county seats in counties with no incorporated municipality. Only those communities or their representatives are eligible to apply for participation as an NC STEP community. Eligible applicants include municipal governments themselves and nonprofit organizations or educational institutions designated as the lead fiscal agent or program coordinator for the community leadership team.


Towns are chosen primarily on economic need, capacity to grow and commitment. Other criteria also may apply. As part of the application process, each town commits to forming a community leadership group to participate in the development and implementation of local projects as well as in broader demonstration activities, such as training programs, site documentation and evaluation. Each leadership team includes a local elected official and a representative of town administration.


Download fact sheet