Rural Center grant contracts to be honored

By Vicki Hyatt | Sep 02, 2013

The embattled Rural Center, a nonprofit organization that’s been at the forefront in rural economic development for the past 15 years but was stripped of state funding after aaudit irregularities, will continue in another form.

Haywood County Chamber of Commerce President CeCe Hipps, who is one of the 25-plus board members still remaining, said the organization’s focus will shift under a plan charted at a meeting last week.

“All programs will be reduced, and we will revitalize and reinvent the Rural Center,” she said. “The best news is grant funding that was promised will be paid.”

It’s a decision that was likely met with a sigh of relief in Canton. About half of a $1.6 million grant to upgrade the Champion Drive sewer line was spent on the promise of reimbursement from the Rural Center. After the audit release, the state budget director froze funding and communities with pending grants were left wondering whether their contracts would be honored.

Hipps said Rural Center grant reimbursement requests will go through the N.C. Department of Commerce and the state budget director before payment is authorized.

Under its new mission, the center will concentrate on leadership development and assistance to small businesses within rural communities.

“Some rural communities, especially down east, have nowhere else to go for this kind of help,” she said. “The Rural Center has been the only life preserver for years.”

The bulk of the center’s funding came from state grants, but the there are other sources of revenue as well.

Under the proposed plan, the staff of 47 will be cut to between 10 and 15 and remaining funds will be targeted toward leadership development and serving businesses.

“Operations will be on a tight schedule until we find a way to supplement the budget,” Hipps said. “The good part about all of this is the Department of Commerce and Rural Center are working well together to make sure the grants approved would be paid out. I see a future role for the Rural Center in economic development. By December we hope to emerge from this and have a new focus.”