CHARLOTTE, N.C. In Brevard, my hometown, we call our central business district either downtown or uptown, the words used interchangeably. By whichever name, it consists of two streets. Every summer Tuesday night, the street in front of the courthouse is shut down for a townwide square dance.
When we’re home, my friends and I hang out at the ice cream stand at the edge of Pisgah National Forest – one of the three government-protected forests that cover half of Transylvania County. A trip to the grocery store typically lasts at least two hours because you run into someone you know on every aisle. The follow-up question to any introduction is, “Are you kin to…?”
Basically, I was raised in a Mayberry-esque bubble of high school football, Main Street hardware stores, and constant small-town gossip. In lots of ways it was idyllic. But it wasn’t perfect.
Starting in 2000, when I was 10, the county’s three major manufacturing plants shut down, one after the other. At their peak, these manufacturers had employed 45 percent of our total labor force. As a fifth grader, all I knew was that lots of my friends’ dads used to have jobs and now they didn’t.
Luckily, the housing boom and Transylvania County’s natural beauty kept our economy afloat for a while longer, faring better than lots of places that lost a large number of manufacturing jobs. Demand for vacation and retirement homes allowed factory workers to transition into construction jobs. This lasted until the housing bubble burst in 2008.
At this point the different economic development approaches taken by the city of Brevard and Transylvania County became apparent.
At the same time as the plants were closing, Brevard was conducting a comprehensive visioning program, entitled Focus 2020, to plan for life after large-scale manufacturing. It led to an initiative on downtown redevelopment.
And it has worked. Today, by any standard, Brevard has a remarkably diverse and vibrant downtown as well as a well-deserved reputation as an artistic, cultural and recreational hub of Western North Carolina.
Transylvania County, on the other hand, made no such plan and responded to the economic downturn by cutting social services and limiting funding for infrastructure developments. The infrastructure deficit that has resulted from lack of investment has cost Transylvania County new business opportunities, which have gone to other Western North Carolina counties with better infrastructure and more amenities, leaving our economy stagnating.
The dichotomy that can be seen in my county is a microcosm of what is happening statewide. As North Carolina’s population centers become more prosperous, many rural areas are falling behind, their heels dug firmly into the soil of the old North Carolina they’re used to rather than stepping into the new North Carolina they’re now living in.
Though North Carolina is rapidly becoming more urbanized, we will never shake our rural roots, nor should we. We can’t write rural people off. The rural areas of our state have the most systemic poverty, the most persistent health problems, and the lowest educational attainment. If North Carolina does not think of how to better the lot of its most vulnerable citizens, their issues will constantly stand as an obstacle to our state’s success.
But action can’t come solely from legislators in Raleigh. Rural people are notoriously prideful and suspicious of outsiders – a culture that has been cultivated since the earliest generations settled these regions. We are in desperate need of strong rural leadership to usher our communities into the 21st century.
I loved growing up in a small town. I loved having a tight-knit community that cared for me and challenged me – that cheered for me when I succeeded and supported me when I failed. I love feeling such a sense of belonging to a place and have no doubt that I am the person I am today because I grew up rural. I only hope that when I have children they can have the same luxury.