By many accounts, North Carolina is a prospering state.
It’s been in the running for an Amazon second headquarters and its urban areas are among the fastest growing in the country.
But in rural North Carolina, which is most of the state — 80 of its 100 counties — there is a different narrative. Many counties are losing population; job growth is flat or on the decline and they are struggling with such basic needs as access to health care and the Internet in a fast-moving digital age.
That divided story was the subject of The News & Observer’s Community Voices forum on Wednesday. Nearly 200 people were at the NC Museum of History to discuss "Bridging North Carolina”s urban-rural divide."
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During a 90-minute discussion, four panelists with varied views of North Carolina’s rural areas talked about why some counties are losing population and how to slow the exodus, as well as entice employers and newcomers to invest in struggling towns and counties.
Ned Barnett, The News & Observer’s associate opinion and solutions editor, noted that despite North Carolina’s success it’s still largely a rural state. Citing Rebecca Tippett, the founding director of the Carolina Population Center at UNC-Chapel Hill, Barnett said North Carolina is a state of "persistent rurality," a place of rural reaches and small farms.
Tippett reported that among the 10 most populous states, North Carolina has the largest proportion of individuals living in rural areas. Its rural population is larger than in any other state except for Texas.
But as North Carolina’s population is increasingly concentrated in the state’s urban areas — a crescent-shaped corridor that stretches from Charlotte through the Triad of Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point to the Triangle — 48 NC counties have lost population since the 2010 Census. Most are in rural areas.
Nearly half of the state’s growth since 2010 has occurred in just two counties, Wake and Mecklenburg.
"So we have a classic tale of two Carolinas., one flourishing, one languishing," Barnett said.
"It is not a new problem. Many state efforts have tried to bridge the urban-rural divide," Barnett said. "But as the difference becomes more stark, the problem becomes more urgent. If a house divided cannot stand, neither can a state. Allowing the divide to grow is fracturing our politics, weakening our economy and diminishing our identity as a state rich not only in urban wealth, but in open land and agricultural resources. "
The two Carolinas have exposed a need for new economic models in rural areas, internet and broadband access, better health care and more farming options — such as organic farms and other crops to replace tobacco.
Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat who represents eight rural counties in the northeastern corner of the state, had this to say about why urban residents should care about the trials of rural regions.
"We’re only as strong as our weakest community," Smith said.
Others on the panel included:
Rochelle Sparko, a lawyer, policy director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and an advocate for fair farm and food policies who helps build connections between small farmers and urban customers.
Dr. Robert Bashford, head of the UNC School of Medicine’s newly created Office of Rural Initiatives.
Patrick Woodie, president and CEO of the NC Rural Center.
They talked about the need for health care access, diversity, bold ideas and internet access.
“We believe strongly rural and urban communities are interconnected," Woodie said.
It’s important, Sparko said, for there to be diversity and a connection between urban residents who like locally sourced and organic foods and the farmers who have the land to grow them.
Bashford said "health literacy" was one idea that would go a great distance to bridging the divide.
Woodie, though, cautioned about making blanket characterizations of the rural areas as struggling and blighted and urban areas as beacons of boom and prosperity. Some rural areas are doing well, he said. Urban areas have their problems, too, such as poverty and growth pressures.
The rural areas don’t only need to recruit new businesses, Woodie said — programs should support the ones already there.
“There is no one thing that solves all our problems," Woodie said.
But forums and efforts to bridge the divide together, the panelists said, can go a long way.
“A single point of connection, a bridge, is not enough.," Sparko said. "We need a complex network of connections."
Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1