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More than 400 leaders from across the state gathered on March 21st and 22nd for peer learning, award recognition, to celebrate the Center’s 35th anniversary, and to hear from speakers addressing how to take local action, plan for an uncertain future, and more. The annual event, presented by Truist, offered sessions that centered around building and sustaining equitable communities and the interconnectivity it takes to ensure a thriving future, from education and agriculture to small business, broadband, and more.
NC Rural Center President Patrick Woodie kicked off the 2022 Rural Summit by sharing that these days, everything feels like it’s changing rapidly. “Now more than ever, we need each other to celebrate our differences, to advocate for new solutions, and to lift up what’s working and change what’s not. We’ve been resilient – because that’s what rural people have always been – but we shouldn’t have to be. How can we come together to ensure that our children, and our children’s children can thrive in this new tomorrow?”
Keynote speaker Becky McCray, founder of SaveYour.Town, shared insights from her real-world experience as a business owner and cattle rancher, and delivered practical steps that can be put into action right away to shape the future of a town. She spoke about her “Idea-Friendly” method, and how important it is to take action – gather your crowd, build connections, and take small steps. “We adapt. We change. We are resilient. We are reinventing the way we interact with our communities… Become a movement that people can get behind, not just a committee for people to join.”
Throughout the event, breakout workshops and panels covered a range of topics, including how churches can create resilient communities, school-community partnerships, small business preservation and growth, integrated healthcare in NC, and many more. A notable presentation on the 2020 Census and what it means for North Carolina’s future was given by Jeanne Milliken Bonds, a former mayor and professor of impact investment and sustainable finance at the UNC Kenan Flagler Business School, and Dr. Jim Johnson, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, and the director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. “The South represents half of the US population gain in the last decade. And the decade before that. And the decade before that,” Johnson shared.
The Center presented four awards during this year’s Rural Summit; the awardees are as follows: 
Rural Leader of the Year to Julie Beck, co-founder of Carolina Pine Consulting, HomeGrown Leaders alumnus, and president of the Mount Olive Area Chamber of Commerce for the last eight years. “For those of you who are new to the Rural Center’s leadership work, Homegrown Leaders emphasizes the importance of cross-sector and diverse partnerships–and Julie is the embodiment of what it looks like to put those tenets into practice. After Homegrown Leaders, she led the charge in convening a group of other leadership alumni in Wayne County. This group met monthly, and just a year after the group was formed, they presented a comprehensive economic development plan for Mount Olive. This plan was designed to see that existing opportunities were strategically leveraged to ensure long-term viability and success in the region,” said Randolph Keaton, executive director of Men and Women United for Youth and Families, our 2018 Rural Leader of the Year, and a member of the Rural Center’s Board of Directors. 
Rural Entrepreneur of the Year to Stanley Hughes and Linda Leach-Hughes, the owners of Pine Knot Farms. “Stanley and Linda are lifelong farmers, educators, and entrepreneurs, and have dedicated their lives to operating Pine Knot Farms and providing education and organic produce to people and communities across North Carolina. Pine Knot Farms, which is celebrating 100 years of service this year, became North Carolina’s first Black-owned, certified organic farm in 1996, and was one of the first farms in the state to grow certified organic tobacco. In addition, Pine Knot Farms also pasture-raises hogs and chickens, and grows a variety of other organic crops throughout the year,” said Thread Capital board chair, Andy Anderson.
Excellence in Regional Collaboration to two winners, Zachary Barricklow and Ed Hunt. Barricklow is the vice president of Rural Innovation and Organizational Change at Wilkes Community College and executive director of the new nonprofit, NC Tech Paths; and Hunt is the KBR Coordinator for The Thomas Entrepreneurship Hub, a business incubator and support resource operated in partnership with UNC-Pembroke. “Ed is also a recent graduate of REDI, has forged strong public and private partnerships in the Sandhills, with a passion for agriculture and the future prosperity of farmers, business owners, and communities across the region,” said NC Rural Center Board member Alice Schenall. “Zachary is a 2019 Homegrown Leaders alum who led the charge to establish NC Tech Paths, a nonprofit that serves Ashe, Alleghany, and Wilkes counties, and helps establish programs in the Northwest that helps allow individuals to train, live, and work in North Carolina’s blooming tech economy–all without having to leave their rural communities.”
Community Bank of the Year to KS Bank. “KS Bank has been a partner of the Rural Center since 2012, and since that time, has supported more than 30 loans for a total lending amount of more than 23 million dollars, of which our [loan] participations total $3.5 million. KS Bank’s partnership has created 121 new jobs and helped retain 537 jobs,” said Phil Marion, treasurer of the NC Rural Center’s Board of Directors.
Closing Keynote Speaker Rebecca Ryan, a futurist and economist, asked the attendees what they wanted 2030 to look like. She outlined strategies in planning, economic development, and workforce development that can be used to ensure communities are well equipped for future trends and challenges, all while requiring the audience to look inward to move forward. “You can’t go back and move forward…the future is what we decide to start building today.”
Virtual tickets are still available and allow the purchaser to view all session videos and materials starting April 5th. To purchase a virtual ticket for this access, click here