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The plot thickens on proposals to merge the Burlington and Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point metropolitan statistical areas in order to come up with a single MSA with a population of more than 1 million.

The thinking is that many companies will not consider expanding into MSAs of less than 1 million. If the Triad is to play in the big leagues of economic development, it must reach that level.Greensboro-Winston-Salem-High Point has an estimated population of 924,000. The Burlington MSA population is estimated at 105,000.

Proposals to join the two MSAs have stalled over the issue of what the merged MSA would be called. Under current rules set by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), an MSA must bear the name of its biggest city and may be named after its three biggest cities.

Because Burlington is smaller than Greensboro, Winston-Salem or High Point, its name would not be included in the title of a merged MSA. That loss of identity has stirred opposition in Burlington and Alamance County.

But, Alamance County Commissioners have endorsed the merger, provided a generic name such as Piedmont Triad can be used as the MSA's name, says commissioner T. Frank Bennett.

Bennett said Sixth District Congressman Howard Coble checked with the budget office and was told that naming of MSAs with a population of over 1 million is more flexible. Coble had advised that ``this could be a regional name or a combination of county names, as long as it does not exceed three names.'

Based on this, he said, the Alamance commissioners adopted a resolution stating that ``the cities, towns and counties which make up this area would be best served with a regional name such as 'Piedmont Triad MSA' or some other form that would identify us as a region.'

Bennett questions whether Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point are willing to give up their identification to achieve a combined MSA with other 1 million population.

He may be partially correct. Greensboro Mayor Vic Nussbaum said the generic term ``Piedmont Triad' may be well known locally but it has virtually no national identification. For this reason, he said, the Greensboro Area Chamber of Commerce doesn't think such a name should be substituted for the present three-name title.

``Whether it's right or wrong, that's the way we feel,' Nussbaum said.

But in Winston-Salem, the need to have an MSA of 1 million is considered the paramount goal, Chamber Executive Vice President Gayle N. Anderson said. ``From our standpoint, we feel it is important enough to get over 1 million that we would be willing to compromise. But we're not going to champion the cause,' she said.

The current census could resolve the issue. If that census shows there is enough commuting patterns between Alamance and Guilford, the budget office may arbitrarily combine the MSAs. It will be at least two years, however, before OMB receives new census figures and starts redesignating metropolitan areas.

In that case, Greensboro could wind up having its cake and eating it too. The budget office has stated that metropolitan areas of 1 million-plus population can use a regional designation in their titles - but it must retain the name of the biggest city, according to Coble aide Ed McDonald. Coble's earlier letters on the subject did not make this clear.

Gas for all In Piedmont North Carolina, natural gas is taken for granted. But that's not true in more than a third of the state's counties, particularly those in the east and in the mountains.

Thirty-eight counties are without natural gas service. House Speaker Joe Mavretic, who represents mostly rural Edgecombe County in the east, wants that to change. In a speech last week to the Eastern North Carolina Chamber of Commerce in Kinston, he repeated a theme he has sounded often in recent months: natural gas companies serving North Carolina should get their lines into unserved counties or else.

One ``else', said Mavretic, could be the forming of rural cooperatives to transport natural gas. Another could be legislation threatening gas companies with loss of franchise if they don't respond positively to state-supported efforts to install lines into gasless counties. ``The growing sentiment among the membership (of the General Assembly) is that natural gas availability is a must,' he said.

The gas companies contend that extension of lines into some counties is not feasible. Mavretic refutes that, noting there are out-of-state gas companies anxious to enter North Carolina. For instance, Birmingham, Ala.-based Southern Natural Gas wants to extend its lines from Aiken, S.C. to Wake County.

Raleigh attorney Jim Cain, who represents the Alabama pipeline company in its petition to the state Utilities Commission, said Southern would need sufficient guarantees from North Carolina's gas companies to make the pipeline feasible. It also would not expect the line to be at full capacity for some time. And, he said, the company would consider extending the line east of Wake County.

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