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Building a collaborative infrastructure in Western North Carolina

Material Return Research and Development Director Bob Carswell. Photo courtesy of The Industrial Commons.

Throughout 2020 and 2021, the Regional Leadership and Capacity Building Initiative has been partnering with community leaders in the Northwestern and Western Prosperity Zones, providing leadership training and programmatic coaching, with the goal of identifying untapped opportunities for sustainable economic growth and development for those communities.

The Initiative convenes different groups and sectors in their region of focus—groups like councils of government, community colleges, small business centers, among others—and provides coaching and guidance as program participants form teams and develop projects that address a variety of needs. Such examples include job creation and economic investment; workforce preparedness; community competitiveness, capacity, and vitality; and agriculture. The Initiative also helps connect program participants to funders who can support their economic development projects.

The Industrial Commons (TIC), a nonprofit based in Burke County, participated in the Initiative last year, and their project ultimately received funding from the Golden LEAF Foundation’s Community-Based Grants Initiative (CBGI).

“Our project was focused on two areas—the first was skilled training for sewing, yarn production and furniture upholstery. The skilled sewing program has already launched its third class and has trained nearly 25 participants,” says Sara Chester, co-executive director of The Industrial Commons. “The second focus area of the grant was to support Material Return, a TIC-incubated business that is a supply chain innovation for textile and furniture companies in the region. It is a platform for custom circularity that allows manufacturers to use their waste as a raw material input.”

Chester says that Material Return is projected to have a substantial economic impact in the region, creating $27 million of private investment by 2030, and that the support of the Initiative and Golden LEAF has allowed Material Return to purchase critical equipment that will bring relationships to fruition with national brands like Smartwool®.

“This will help small to mid-size manufacturers in rural North Carolina leverage national markets to root more wealth in the state and create more quality jobs,” says Chester. “The Rural Center provided valuable coaching and was critical in helping us learn about, prepare, and ultimately submit the proposal to Golden LEAF.”

NC Rural Center Community Engagement Manager Olaunda Green says that The Regional Leadership and Capacity Building Initiative brings together the different community players in a region and works with them to develop high-impact projects that will help their community’s immediate needs and lay the groundwork for future prosperity.

“We are ensuring that not only are these projects feasible and have pathways to funding, but that every voice is at the table during development,” says Green. “What ultimately results from this program are long-term collaborations and partnerships, which are invaluable assets for the resiliency of our rural regions, leaders, and communities.”

By connecting community leaders and support organizations to the resources and funding necessary to develop and implement these projects, not only are we helping address present needs, but building a collaborative infrastructure that exists in communities long after the project term has ended.

The NC Rural Center’s Regional Leadership and Capacity Building Initiative is supported through funding by the Golden LEAF Foundation. Learn more about the Initiative here.