Decker emphasizes focus on rural development

Jessica Johnson Staff reporter

January 11, 2014

The state’s most important focus is on rural areas, according to N.C. Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker.

She shared that during a talk at Cross Creek Country Club during a talk sponsored by the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce on Thursday afternoon, following the official designation of Mount Airy as a certified retirement community.

Decker said North Carolina is “fortunate to have three large economic centers” that are “growing very well” — the triangle, triad, and Charlotte regions — and added that the “engines turning there will benefit all of us.”

Now, she said, it time to focus on rural North Carolina, including Surry County.

“The world is urbanizing, and you and I aren’t going to change that trend, but we can keep our rural communities healthy.”

Decker added that the certified retirement community designation was a “very good step, because it is one of the strategies for growth in the state,” and an indication that “there is no better place to live than this great state.”

The floor was opened up for those in attendance to ask questions and voice concerns.

Carol Burke with North End Partners asked Decker to help promote the slogan “Yadkin Valley is to North Carolina as Napa Valley is to California,” which led the secretary to share what she thought was “at the heart of growing industry in North Carolina” — advanced manufacturing and agribusiness.

“These industries are at the heart of who we are and they are two that are changing very fast. Agribusiness includes everything from wineries, distilling, organic gardening, mass production of crops, vineyards…this new development is very niche-oriented, organic, and includes fresh farm-to-table initiatives. North Carolina is in the perfect position to really capture this.”

Gas tax revenues

City Commissioner Shirley Brinkley told Decker she would like to see the gas tax lowered, and added that “many people” from this area drive to Virginia to fill up their gas tanks on a regular basis. Decker said that “gas tax is on the radar” but added that the gas tax has allowed the state to “be a lot more progressive with road and infrastructure construction” than states with lower gas taxes.

“This issue is very important. Gas revenues are declining and infrastructure needs are growing,” Decker said. She added that one of the most significant issues is linking North Carolina to the Norfolk port, which she believed would help get eastern North Carolina out of one of the “worst economic situations in the state,” and they were now “looking very openly at alternative strategies for funding” instead of using gas tax revenues.

Newly-structured Rural Economic Development Division

In response to a question from Mike Finley, field representative for U.S. Senator Richard Burr, Decker addressed last year’s news that the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center would now operate under new organization, the Rural Economic Development Division, operated under the Department of Commerce and headed by Dr. Patricia Mitchell.

Decker admitted that this change was not one that she expected, but added that the previouis rural center had “done a lot of good work,” but they were now “more focused on immediate opportunities,” shifting to the priority of recruiting and business support in rural areas that were “having a difficult time doing it on their own.”

Decker said all new grants moving forward would be made available through the new Rural Economic Development Division, one that would “meet six times per year for grant-making,” and added that the first round of grants had already been awarded.

State government and rural areas

SouthData President John Springthorpe asked how state government can help rural North Carolina. She said North Carolina is “logistically in a great spot” with four nearby ports, which created a “real advantage,” but only if the state continued to support infrastructure needs in rural areas. She added that Surry County Economic Development Partnership Todd Tucker had been discussing “projects that are getting water and sewer to critical places” in the county.

Decker said that workforce development was also critical, and emphasized the importance of having resources at the community level to help train and retrain people.

“I talk with companies looking at moving to our state, and access to workforce is the number one issue. The truth is, we have job openings, but the challenge is getting people with the skills, work ethic, and aptitude to take the jobs.”

Another question from the audience addressed how the local community could help commerce in this area. Decker said the key was local economic development efforts, through a partnership between the chamber of commerce, business leaders, the Surry County Economic Development Partnership, the tourism development authority, as well as volunteer efforts. “You are the ones who craft this community for the future,” Decker emphasized

“Our job is to make North Carolina affordable, sell-able, livable, and it’s a great place to choose for those things, but this is about what you do at the local level…that is when you start to see success…it has to do with economic health, quality of education, the workforce, the physical environment, and the image projected — all of those things factor in to it. You already have the focus here, with great passion and enthusiasm — just love this community! We defeat ourselves sometimes, and get caught up in arguments that don’t build us up, they tear us down…working together can build up the community, which will lead to great success.”

Community colleges important

Dr. George Sappenfield, vice president of corporate and continuing education with Surry Community College, shared that Thursday marked the college’s official 50th anniversary, and said he appreciated her support of community colleges across the state. Sappenfield asked Decker to share suggestions about how to keep getting better.

Decker said the work community colleges across the state do is “critically important to our recovery.”

“We have a community college within 30 miles of every citizen in the state…if you need the skills, there is no excuse. We have great access in this state, and that’s important.”

She added that more “cultural work” had to be done to make sure young people and adults realize that not everyone must attend a four-year school.

“Community colleges are the first point of entry into education beyond that, and culturally we need to be more open to this. We should encourage everyone to attend, including the brightest and best, those who struggle, those with little education — community college is the place of entry and that is a critical area of our agenda.”