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A recent gathering of local and regional leaders sought to identify opportunities for Wilson County communities’ growth.
The N.C. Cooperative Extension office in Wilson and the N.C. Rural Center hosted a Rural Counts Community Forum at the Wilson County Agricultural Center last week.
Rural Center President Patrick Woodie said the organization is celebrating its 30th year with visits to the 80 counties it serves.
The N.C. Rural Center is an economic development organization, which defines rural communities as having less than 250 people per square mile.
Similar forums were held Tuesday and Wednesday in the four counties that, combined with Wilson, comprise the Upper Coastal Plain region — Nash, Edgecombe, Northampton and Halifax.
“We have learned in this work that when you have seen one rural county, you have one seen one rural county,” Woodie said. “We want to make sure that we understand what is going on at a local level and that we understand the nuance that exists between and among those rural counties.”
AGRICULTURE SETS PACE
The conversation was an opportunity for Woodie and John Coggin, N.C. Rural Center director of advocacy, to listen and learn about what is going on in Wilson County.
Host Norman Harrell, county Cooperative Extension director, said his staff of 10 works in coordination with a wide range of community leaders.
“We all work together in rural development because there are certainly areas that all tie into that,” Harrell said. “We are working with all aspects of agriculture.”
Agriculture is a major component in Wilson County’s economy, generating more than $150 million in gross sales last year.
“We are one of the top five counties in cash sales of crops,” Harrell said. “We are a small geographic county compared to others, but we lead the state in three areas — nursery, tobacco and sweet potatoes.”
Wilson does have an above-average number of young people who are coming back to the farm.
“Our office will provide educational opportunities for farmers to try and make them more profitable and help them when problems come up,” Harrell said. “That is kind of our mainstay, keeping them more profitable.”
Greg Godard, CEO of the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments, which works in conjunction with the Rural Center, said there is challenging work in these rural counties.
“We have got five counties and 37 municipalities,” Goddard said. “We try to spread ourselves around to particularly small towns to provide technical assistance and writing grants and doing whatever it takes to get them to where ever they need to be. Saratoga is one of our premier towns that we work with.”
Charles Thomas Hawkins, mayor of Saratoga, said the town has come a long ways in his 40-year tenure.
“Our only industry is water,” Hawkins said. “If you drink any water from Food Lion, you are drinking water from a plant called Old Saratoga. They have been in business now for 20-some years now, and they ship about four truckloads of water out per day.”
Saratoga town Commissioner Elaine Saunders said when she first came on 17 years ago, the town had not embraced any new technology.
“Everything was done in pen and pencil, no computers or anything,” Saunders said. “We’ve got a town clerk now that embraces technology. We were able to get meters that could be read electronically. Thanks to Upper Coastal Plains, we have really been able to build our infrastructure and update out infrastructure.”
Part of that was getting a new garbage truck, the first one in about 40 years. The town also got a new recycling program.
“In households, we are probably around 230 or 240, but with the new garbage truck and the new recycling program we were able to extend that to customers that were in our ETJ [extraterritorial jurisdiction], so that is what we are working on now, bringing some more people in,” Saunders said.
PLACEMAKING IN WILSON
Don Belk of the state commerce department’s Main Street and Rural Planning Center was at the meeting to work with attendees.
“Our mission is to work with our North Carolina’s rural communities on placemaking. The fancy term is asset-based economic development, but what that means is take what you have, take what makes your community special and leverage that into new opportunities, new investment and jobs,” Belk said. “Probably one of the grandest examples is right here in the city of Wilson with the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park. You had the ingredients of a local genius, community commitment, and together that has created a wonderful place that is nationally known and is, more importantly, drawing tens of millions of dollars in new investment and creating jobs downtown. Wilson is doing a lot of great things.”
Wilson is one of 94 communities in the state working with the Main Street and Rural Planning Center.
“There are a lot of communities with a lot of needs,” Belk said. “That is the charge of our organization, to help these communities with these assets.”
Wilson resident Dale Turner said he grew up in Wilson as a country kid and left when he was 18. Turner returned to Wilson at age 63 after a career in the Air Force and as an investment banker.
“I have some perspective in terms of being able to compare it to where we were and where we are now,” Turner said.
Turner said he has been most impressed with Wilsonians’ collaborative nature.
“Most citizens are very committed to improving this community,” Turner said. “Redevelopment downtown, I think we have reached the tipping point there, which is certainly important, as the city manager always says, name your favorite city and what do they all have in common, a vibrant downtown area.”
Melissa Evans, director of the Small Business Center at Wilson Community College, helps people start small businesses in Wilson.
“One of the things that I am proud of is that Wilson, last April, was chosen by WalletHub as being sixth in the nation to start a business and that was based upon looking at our culture in the Wilson area and looking at the economic factors that were there and how much support there was in the area for that,” Evans said. “I think I have seen about 140 business owners starting new businesses and I would say that probably less than 10 of those have not been successful.”
“Small businesses are really the lifeblood of the community,” Evans said. “Small businesses are reinvesting back into the community. They hire more individuals and those dollars tend to stay local.”
MANUFACTURING PRIMEd FOR GROWTH
“You can’t look at rural North Carolina and ignore the importance of the ag sector. It is a huge part of the state GDP,” Woodie said. “The problem is, we have not done enough of the value-added production close to wherever the product is grown. We need to see a lot more of that value added food processing and food production happening closer to home. We think there’s great opportunities to grow that part of our economy, particularly as people, wherever they live, are much more aware of where their food comes from than perhaps they have ever been before.”
Woodie said that Wilson still has a pretty strong manufacturing economy.
“The issue is the jobs that are returning don’t bear any resemblance to the manufacturing economy of old,” Woodie said. “It means our workforce has to transition and a whole lot of things have to happen in order for that sector to be strong and robust and continue to grow. We have a strong community college system that is an envy of a lot of the rest of the country. Certainly it is a front line resource in helping transition our workforce to a new economy and a new way of doing things.”
Woodie encourages local leaders to consider attending the organization’s Rural Economic Development Institute class.
“I think I would highly recommend to any of you who haven’t done the leadership program,” said Goddard, a graduate of the program. “It was a life-challenging experience for me, coming into contact with a lot of diverse people and opening my scope of vision in looking at what we need to be looking at in rural North Carolina.
Monday is the deadline for applying for the nine-day class that begins in March. For more information, visit www.ruralcenter.org.