Rural North Carolina is home to the second largest rural population in the country. Residents here often appreciate the strong sense of place rural living provides. And while these residents have weathered their fair share of hardships over the past couple decades, current economic forces have presented new opportunities to build a more vibrant future, according to Patrick Woodie, president and CEO of the NC Rural Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 1987 to improve rural quality of life.
“Everybody everywhere is rethinking how they live their lives and how they want to live their lives and evaluating their options,” Woodie said on an episode of the Rural Business Show. “For some people — and we’re seeing this — they are going to choose the rural lifestyle.”
Woodie joined Rural Business host Ben Rowley for a wide-ranging conversation about how small town economies have changed in recent years and the main forces that will position rural communities for success moving forward.
The Changing Rural Economy
Woodie is a self-described “rural kid from the mountains of northwestern North Carolina.” After growing up in a tight-knit rural community that he still considers the center of his universe, Woodie has spent three decades working in nonprofit economic development, with a focus on rural areas. “There’s not a nook or cranny [in rural North Carolina] that I haven’t had an opportunity to be in, to see and experience firsthand, to know people there, to work with them, to move their communities forward,” he said.
In 2013, he was named president and CEO of the NC Rural Center. His first task was to lead the organization through a major transitional period, prompted by changes to state appropriated funds. In the 10 years since, Woodie has helped the center overhaul its business model and rebuild its workforce from 15 to 50 employees strong.
This strategic shift helped the center reposition itself to meet the needs of rural communities across the state amid significant economic change. North Carolina has shed more than 350,000 manufacturing jobs since 1993, impacting virtually every community in the state. While some communities have rebounded as the supply of manufacturing jobs stabilizes, others have struggled to diversify and rebuild their employment bases, according to Woodie. “It’s been a hard road to navigate,” he said.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which increased rural populations and slowed urbanization, but strained existing pain points, like broadband access and childcare. Noting the recent uptick in rural residents and government funding from the pandemic, Woodie is optimistic about the future of rural North Carolina. He believes more people will choose rural living — especially in communities with reliable access to the internet, high-quality healthcare, educational opportunities and childcare. The paradox for many rural communities, however, is finding a way to establish these foundational services without first achieving a certain level of economic development, and vice versa.
On the show, Woodie touched on the following strategies to break the cycle and build robust, vibrant communities that will continue to thrive:
1. Prioritize connection.
In a connected world, the single biggest issue facing rural North Carolina is the lack of broadband infrastructure, according to Woodie. “If you don’t have broadband infrastructure, you don’t have an essential building block to the modern world and the modern economy,” he said. Education, telehealth and job growth all hinge on internet access. The good news for rural North Carolina is that the state now has billions of dollars in federal and state funding earmarked for broadband expansion. The challenge is ensuring this expansion happens equitably.
“What keeps me awake at night is knowing the communities that need it, the worst are unserved or severely underserved, they also lack the capacity, without help, to know how to access the resources that are there,” Woodie said. Community leaders may not be comfortable with how to approach technology as a utility, and they may not recognize that investing in infrastructure alone isn’t enough. Communities also need resources to understand how to best use the technology and to ensure they can access and afford it. For that, Woodie advises community leaders to seek out and connect with organizations like the NC Rural Center for additional support.
2. Invest in unique assets.
The NC Rural Center takes a “place-based approach” to rural economic development, which emphasizes investment in each community’s inherent, unique assets. Woodie advises communities to look inward and identify potential differentiators in their area that they can build upon. When in doubt, he recommends calling in reinforcements. “We often find that local people may not necessarily always be the best at assessing their assets,” he said. “Sometimes it takes an outside perspective to look at the community… and [see] the things that local people take for granted.”
He gave the example of an economic sector in the far southwestern part of North Carolina, west of Asheville. Recognizing the appeal of the region’s rugged landscapes, seven rural counties banded together to build a competitive outdoor recreation sector. They looked beyond seasonal tourism to attract outdoor recreation equipment manufacturers and retailers. To date, the region has made significant headway in establishing a name for itself as a hub for outdoor recreational equipment manufacturers, according to Woodie.
3. Think regionally.
“Regional frameworks are incredibly important as we look toward the future,” Woodie said. He credits the early success of the emerging outdoor recreation sector in the southwestern part of the state to regional thinking. The counties pooled their resources and focused on a strategy that would benefit everyone in the greater region, rather than getting hung up on the specific county. Regional solutions are especially important for rural areas, where resources may be more scarce and building regional economies of scale can be more sustainable.
“Everybody loves their hometown,” Woodie said. “And that’s a great thing, but we’ve got to get beyond the Friday night football rivalries, and the other six days of the week, we need to be working together in a collaborative way.”
4. Embrace diversity.
Lastly, Woodie noted the increasing diversity of young people living in North Carolina. The population of North Carolina residents under age 18 is significantly more diverse than their counterparts over age 18, a trend reflected across the country, according to U.S. Census data. Embracing and engaging with this diverse youth population is important to future success, according to Woodie.
“It’s incumbent upon rural leaders to welcome everybody to the community table to have a voice in shaping the future direction of the community, and to look around that community table as it exists today and to say, ‘Who’s not here that we should bring to the table?’” Woodie said. “The communities that figure that out, understand that and deliberately work toward building that are going to have a bright future in front of them.”
The economic forces at work in rural North Carolina will inevitably bring change to rural economies, but welcoming change as an opportunity for growth can help small towns preserve the qualities that make them unique. Woodie told listeners: “The real challenge is to find opportunity and to understand how your community and your region is going to deal with those things.”
To learn more about these forces and how the NC Rural Center is helping communities navigate them, visit www.ncruralcenter.org.