Rural Center will be missed in Haywood

Aug 09, 2013

There are many people, especially in Raleigh, who are dancing on the grave of the N.C. Rural Center now that the state budget director had frozen its funds and the General Assembly has defunded the organization.

Here in Haywood, and I suspect in other western counties, the mood is glum.

The Rural Center has been a tried and true friend to smaller counties just trying to keep their head in the game when it comes to economic development.

Mostly that involved financial assistance putting in water and sewer projects, which are essential for any sort of expansion if a town or district’s capacity is maxed out. A $1.67 million sewer project in Canton was made possible when the Rural Center promised to cover half the costs. The expansion will meet development needs for the foreseeable future, and we’re counting on the N.C. Department of Commerce, which is now in charge, to honor that contract.

The availability of funds through agencies such as the Rural Center, AdvantageWest, Golden Leaf and the Appalachian Regional Commission gave sparsely populated counties hope that they, too, could grow and prosper. Counties participated by hiring economic development directors to identify good fits for their area, and the regional agencies worked together to make things happen west of Charlotte, an area that seldom seems to be on the radar of state leaders.

Western legislators started out as strong supporters of the Rural Center because they realized how essential this funding source has been in pulling projects together.

A two-part expose in the Raleigh News and Observer and a state audit report convinced those in charge to scrap the organization. The reports showed the agency funding didn’t create the number of jobs that were projected, that the $25 million in state funds contributed to the agency wasn’t properly monitored, that those on the board obtained grants for their communities, including agencies they represented, and that funds were used to attract chain stores.

We’re not in a position to look at the big picture, but in our little corner of the state, Rural Center funding has helped us build the WNC Regional Livestock Center, ensure that Sonoco Plastics stayed in Waynesville rather than accept offers from other states trying to lure them away, expand Haywood Vocational Opportunities, which not only manufactures medical grade draping but provides work for those with disabilities, bring the historic Imperial Hotel in Canton back to its original grandeur, made our industrial parks possible and the list goes on — and on.

For those in Haywood County, the Rural Center was a known entity that could be counted on when help was needed. A future without the Rural Center is an unknown. That makes us nervous, especially when we look at the composition of a new N.C. Department of Commerce Economic Development Board where only one of the 30 members lives west of Charlotte.

Haywood residents need to pay careful attention to how our county fares under the new economic development model. If it is successful, that’s wonderful. If it isn’t successful, we need make our voices heard.

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