Rural North Carolina is at a crossroads. Many counties face double-digit unemployment and almost half are losing population. The loss of manufacturing to trade deals and tobacco to common sense, has left those regions with few viable alternatives. Bribing companies to relocate there hasn’t worked well and luring companies based on low wages, low taxes and few regulations is a race to the bottom.
So how about trying something bold? The region needs an instant shot in the arm. Start with an infrastructure program that repairs bridges and highways, improves water and sewer treatment facilities, upgrades schools and community colleges and expands broadband. In the process, we can target bicycle tourism. With hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of scenic byways, we can attract the rapidly growing population of recreational bicyclists by adding wide shoulders to rural roads. States like Minnesota and Wisconsin have made investments and are seeing returns. Bicycle tourists add $1.5 billion–with a b– to Wisconsin’s economy every year.
Let’s look for new revenue streams. Like it or not marijuana is now legal in some form in 21 states and the number is growing. We don’t necessarily need to legalize consumption in North Carolina, but we should legalize production. Over the next 25 years, it will likely be legalized in most states. We shouldn’t pass up a huge economic opportunity because of self-righteous moral standards. We’re the state that defended tobacco and cigarettes throughout the 20th century, remember?
We should focus on energy. The country is shifting its economy from one based on carbon-based energy sources to one based on renewable sources. North Carolina is primed to take advantage of that opportunity. We have the land and conditions for large scale solar farms and wind turbines. And, yes, we have natural gas. The current legislature is bound and determined to get it out of the ground, so we should make sure that it is done in the safest way possible. And really, natural gas is part of the transition. It’s responsible for lowering carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
Finally, let’s get over our moral opposition to gambling. Neither the state lottery nor the casino in Cherokee has caused the social and moral decline that critics predicted. There’s a relatively good chance that Cleveland County is going to have a casino in coming years. With proper federal recognition, the Lumbees could have one right off of I-95, attracting people from both the north and south.
And we should introduce horse racing. Moore County is already horse country. A track down in that area could attract people from the Triangle, Fayetteville and even Charlotte. The expanded horse industry would provide needed jobs to counties throughout that hard-hit region. The tax revenue from pari-mutual betting would provide another source of income for the state.
There it is. A rural economic development plan with something for everybody to love and something for everybody to hate. At least it doesn’t rely on the same strategies that have failed so far. With the exception of the infrastructure project, it requires relatively little government investment and allows for creation of homegrown industries. It’s at least worth a thought.