North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper surprised attendees at the annual NC Main Street Conference in Clayton last month.
Representatives from Mayodan, Eden and Reidsville went to the three-day conference, as they are Main Street communities.
“I don’t think there’s any question that our Main Streets reflect the spirit and character of North Carolina,” Cooper said.
“I grew up in rural eastern North Carolina. My mom and dad made me work hard on the farm every single summer until I went to college,” he said.
“I spent many a day in downtown Nashville, North Carolina. It’s where my church was, where the courthouse was… The dime store was there… anytime we fouled off a baseball in the weeds we had to get together our work money and go down to the dime store and buy a baseball. It’s where we met and talked. It’s where I sold my watermelons that I grew.”
“Our downtowns do reflect that character, and I believe we know what our challenges are for our Main Streets in rural North Carolina… higher unemployment, trying to find and get that workforce, poverty, lack of broadband and other kinds of infrastructure like natural gas and water and sewer. That’s what this effort is all about, meeting those challenges,” he said of the NC Main Street program.
“One thing I know is that people in rural North Carolina can face challenges and can overcome them,” Cooper said. “And you out there, local elected officials, economic developers, town managers, county managers… you are doing it.”
He said as the state’s CEO and chief economic development recruiter, he has a mission statement.
“I want a North Carolina where people are better educated, where they’re healthier, where they have more money in their pockets, and they have the opportunity to live a more abundant and purposeful life,” he said, adding that conference attendees are helping fulfill that mission statement.
“You are helping downtowns get rebuilt and remodeled and retooled,” Cooper said.
“I am committed to bridging the rural-urban divide. You don’t do it by pitting one against the other. You try to make sure that tide rises and we all float upward. And I believe we can do that,” he said.
“A few weeks ago I announced an effort called Hometown Strong. It reflects what we want to do. Hometown Strong is not a new bureaucracy. It is not a new agency. It is an action team in the governor’s office, headed by a couple of native North Carolinians,” Cooper said.
“This action team is committed to partnering with rural areas, counties, cities… their mission is to break down barriers, to work with you and help you get done what you need to get done… to maybe connect you with a grant somewhere that you may not have known about, or to help you cut red tape in a particular agency, or to help bring in federal help in a project,” he said.
“I’m excited about this effort. Often in a rural area, you don’t’ have a whole lot of people to help you navigate the maze which can be state government, which can be the nonprofit world, which can be the federal government,” Cooper said. “I believe that it is a real opportunity we have. We’re going to start out with a few counties across the state, and hope to expand it across North Carolina.”
Cooper said perhaps his most important work involves getting the workforce trained across the state, in a program called NC Job Ready.
“We’re working to try to develop our downtowns, to try to make ourselves more attractive to companies that will provide higher wages to our citizens,” he said. “I don’t care how pretty we make things look, if we do not have a well-trained workforce, businesses will not come, they will not expand. They need to know they have the people to do the job.”
Cooper cited a report that 85 percent of the jobs in the year 2030 have not been created as of 2018.
“We are in a race with innovation. The landscape is changing. Now more than ever, we need to make sure our workforce is prepared,” he said.
That’s going to happen in three ways:
- Educational attainment – By 2025, 67 percent of jobs that are available will require some type of post-high school education. “We have to make North Carolina a top 10 educated state. We do that by getting more of our kids in pre-K, by graduating more of our kids with a quality high school education, and by making sure we pay our educators and get our teacher salaries to the national average. We invest in education or we will be left behind. We need to encourage our legislature to preserve our tax base. In rural areas… you depend on the state to make sure they are supplying you with quality teachers and principals. We need a bond issue soon to help counties build schools. We have to educate middle schoolers and their families that you don’t need a four-year degree.”
- Business community involvement – “We need them to tell us what they need… a workforce that can think critically, that can solve problems, that can adapt to change. And our education system needs to respond to that. Work-based learning works. We need more internships and apprenticeships and partnerships.”
- Local innovation – “Our rural areas often have to have a different approach to job training and economic development than our urban areas do. We want to let that innovation thrive, and encourage that.”
“Help me as we work to make life better for North Carolinians,” Cooper said. “I thank you for what you are already doing. We’ve already got companies out there that are participating with our community colleges.”
In Johnston County a steel company has provided over 1,000 pounds of steel to the community college, and has hired 16 welders from the college. In Burlington, a co-op has formed and a grocery store has opened after difficulties selling fresh food and produce downtown, despite the city being surrounded by agriculture.
“I’m excited about where we can go. About the kind of state we can be. We have to recognize that we have to invest in our people,” Cooper said.
Contact Gerri Hunt at email@example.com, (336) 349-4331, ext. 6137 and follow @HuntGerri_RCN on Twitter.