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Guest View— Lawmakers working to improve struggling rural areas

Erica Smith-Ingram grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina, attended the N.C. School of Science and Math in Durham and earned an engineering degree at N.C. A&T. She went on to work for Boeing and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Then, in 2003, she returned to teach science and math in high school. Today, she lives in Northampton County and represents it and seven other small counties in the state Senate.

Every one of those counties lost population from 2010 through 2015. The trends are expected to continue, with one of them, Bertie, projected to lose another 26 percent of its population by 2035, according to North Carolina’s Office of State Budget and Management. All eight counties have unemployment rates higher than the state average.

In much of rural North Carolina, young people leave to find better opportunities, especially if they have the chance to go off to college. Smith-Ingram was no exception, until she decided in mid-career to return home.

But not everyone can go home to a good job. There aren’t enough companies to hire available workers or, after young people leave, there aren’t enough well-educated workers to attract new companies.

The state has tried to interrupt that cycle. Some bad ideas have included redistributing tax revenues from wealthier counties to poorer ones. The N.C. Senate recently advanced another effort in the form of a bill that would reserve more economic incentive money for struggling counties. Smith-Ingram, a Democrat, joined five Republicans as a co-sponsor of the legislation, which passed the Senate and awaits consideration in the House.

The measure sprang from a study of state economic incentive grants that found most of the funds go to Wake and Mecklenburg counties. In 2015, the Job Development Investment Grant program awarded $74 million to companies to help finance job creation, but none of that money went to a project in what the state calls a Tier One county, or most economically distressed.

“I was appalled by the study committee’s findings but not surprised,” Smith-Ingram said Tuesday.

There are three economic tiers, with 40 counties in each of the first two and 20 in the third, or highest. Guilford County slipped from Tier 3 in 2016 to Tier 2 this year. Tier 3 counties are considered the wealthiest, and they end up with most of the incentives awards. The state pays for the rich to get richer.

Two examples were seen this week. The state announced Tuesday that Credit Suisse will add 1,200 jobs in Wake County and can receive up to $40 million in JDIG grants. The next day, the financial firm AXA said it will add 550 jobs in Mecklenburg County. It will be eligible for nearly $12 million in JDIG funds.

Smith-Ingram said it’s no wonder “the same counties have persistently high poverty.” So, among other provisions, her bill would limit JDIG awards in Tier 3 counties to 50 percent of the statewide total.

“This will benefit a Guilford County, giving it access to 50 percent of the money,” she said.

Guilford County needs more jobs, but it isn’t losing population or distressed. For counties in those circumstances, incentives alone aren’t a magic formula.

“This is a start, but not enough,” Smith-Ingram said. Her counties need help to build a skilled workforce and infrastructure, including broadband internet service and better water systems. The state should invest in these communities and aggressively offer incentives for suitable companies to locate in rural counties and small towns.

Smith-Ingram’s district is fortunate to have her “back home,” but opportunities for other rural residents will be hard to come by without more state help.

— from the News & Record of Greensboro.


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