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University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Moderated by UNC-TV’s Director of Production, Shannon Vickery, this topical town hall event features an interactive, multimedia dialogue among expert panelists, representing local leadership in education, policy and industry, and viewers like you. Participating experts include: UNC-Pembroke Chancellor Charles Jenkins; Dr. Larry Keen, President of Fayetteville Technical Community College; Archie Hart, Special Assistant to the Commissioner of Agriculture; Dr. Freda Porter, Founder and President, Porter Scientific; and Steve Yost, CecD, Director, North Carolina’s Southeast. Topics for discussion include the region’s role in agriculture, food processing, biotechnology, distribution, and the military.
The economy, unemployment, and poverty: these are the major concerns expressed by residents of Southeastern North Carolina and the topic of discussion on Tuesday, October 13 at a town hall meeting hosted by the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Community leaders, students and residents of Southeastern NC joined an panel of experts to discuss rural economic development in the state. The key take-aways: More education, more collaboration and a positive attitude.
Shannon Vickery led the discussion which also included questions from the audience, audience polls and opinions and questions submitted by local community members. Beginning with Mr. Yost, the talk immediately turned toward the competitive global economy that North Carolina is currently facing. Yost commented that this economy greatly influences how the Economic Development Board recruits companies, jobs, industry, and private investment to the area. According to Yost, NC and the United States as a whole used to "rest on our laurels," but now that other countries have caught up in producing educated, skilled workforces and diversifying their industry bases, there is additional pressure, especially on rural areas, to keep up with this economic environment. Yost emphasizes, however, that the outlook is not entirely bleak, "We shouldn't fear the global economy. It's here, it's here to stay, it will increasingly get more competitive for us in terms of what we do economically here in North Carolina and we have to find different approaches and strategies and ways of addressing that," he added.
The discussion then quickly shifted to local businesses. Dr. Porter addressed the issue of how companies must adapt to this changing economic environment with innovation and new ideas. "The business model breaks down," she says, "So many companies are willing to work for less than cost, and you have to think beyond the regular scheme to make the business model work." She adds that businesses must stretch themselves to utilize all of the capabilities they posses in order to perform for their clients and keep the business they still have during this economic downturn.
Mr. Hart applies the same idea to the agriculture industry. According to Mr. Hart, Southeastern NC is "blessed" in that it is able to contribute about $2 billion of the $9 billion that agriculture brings to the state's economy. He went on to say that NC is the third most diversified state in the country, behind Texas and Florida. He stresses that a key factor to improving economic conditions is to have "North Carolina farmers feed North Carolina people." According to Mr. Hart, the longer the raw product stays in the farmers' hands, rather than being transported through inter-state commerce, the more money the farmer takes in and the more the local economy is stimulated, diets become more nutritious, and the environment is protected.
Turning to education, Dr. Keen mentions that more people have headed back to school to take advantage of educational opportunities during this economic hardship. Community colleges and universities alike have seen significant enrollment increases since the recession set in. Dr. Keen stresses that "at the end of the day when you're talking about building businesses, retaining businesses, and attracting businesses, literally what determines their decisions is the availability of talent," adding that today most industries are looking for a skilled, educated labor force to fill high-tech jobs. Therefore, he believes the state should provide more educational opportunities, and in turn, citizens should take advantage of those opportunities in order to both create and bring in new business to the state and particularly to rural regions.
Dr. Jenkins broke down the issue by explaining that the foundation for surmounting all of these challenges is education, especially at the educational and primary level. He believes that the development of more effective teachers and administrators is crucial, in addition to a shift in focus: "For too long, we have focused too much on our schools, but we need to shift the focus and think about how we can get parents more involved at the elementary level to ensure that their children are successful." He also believes that every person in the state must graduate from high school and that we should encourage everyone to go to college, whether to a four-year university or a community college. Dr. Jenkins worries that "we're losing too many students who are not completing a college degree," and that college degrees transform families and influence parents to put a greater emphasis on education.
After addressing each topic, the audience was polled to find out what they believed would do the most to improve the economic outlook in the region?
INCENTIVES - 31%
MORE EDUCATION - 22%
INFRASTRUCTURE - 17%
LEADERSHIP - 19%
Shannon then brought up the fact that, according to U.S. census data, poverty rates exceed 16% in many rural areas of NC, and Scotland County in Southeastern, NC has the highest unemployment rate in the state. Yost admitted that poverty is a generational problem and not something than can be fixed overnight, but that the economic development commission has implemented many strategies to address the problem, the number one strategy being job creation. Echoing Dr. Jenkins, Yokes agreed that talent is what companies look for -- not cheap, unskilled labor -- and that education is a huge part in pulling the workforce out of poverty. And in line with the audience poll, Dr. Jenkins says that he would like to see people be more innovative and entrepreneurial. He believe NC should focus on growing its own businesses and industries, and should revise the taxcode and tax system and use incentives to encourage business owners to be innovative in creating jobs.
The discussion turned local with a question submitted by Scott from Pembroke about whether or not there is a plan to level the playing field in terms of areas where the state offers businesses incentives to locate, commenting that many of those areas are not rural. To answer, Yost assured that there is a broad base of incentives available for companies to locate in rural counties, but notes that the system is not perfect and could be made more effective by broadening the eligibility requirements of companies to take those incentives. He also emphasized that existing industries can also qualify for incentives, as these incentives are available to projects and companies that plan to create a large impact in the local and regional economy.
Audience member Justin Smith from the Columbus County Economic Development Commission followed with a question directed toward Yost about how this regional focus can be further developed for economic development. According to Yost, regionalism tends to be the most innovative way to create strategies and make an impact, but that success can really only be accomplished through collaboration. He mentioned the governor's recent comment encouraging organizations to "tear down silos," that instead of working within one mindset within a organization, everyone should branch out in order to think of new ideas and strategies together. Dr. Keen added that there are a lot of incentives available for companies, but making sure that organizations know what is available to each other and applying them when its appropriate is crucial.
Similarly, Mr. Hart suggested that North Carolinians must also change their mindsets to be more regionally focused, especially when it comes to local foods, citing the Goodness Grows and It's Got To Be NC efforts to promote local agriculture. According to Hart, the majority of our food products do not come from NC, and that the state needs to implement infrastructure and assistance so that food can be grown locally and feed people locally. To that end, Dr. Jenkins added that the universities and colleges are collaborating to establish the same thing, emphasizing that the food industry has a lot of potential for the state.
Kevin Freeman, a political science professor at UNCP then brought up the fact that the university in Pembroke serves as both a gateway for future employees in the region and a major employer in the area, and asked the panel what its focus and priorities should be because of that role. Dr. Jenkins stressed that the university community should continue to strive to be a first-rate university. The greatest impact of the university is to create leaders and educated citizens, and it already is working for that through teacher development, nursing and allied health programs, and other curricula that offer opportunities for students and for all of Southeastern NC. A sophomore political science major at UNCP continued the university-focus conversation by asking Dr. Jenkins what he believed students and young adults could do to help enhance Robeson County. Dr. Jenkins stressed that the most important thing that young people can do is complete their college degree. Secondly, he added, young citizens can get involved with public service service efforts to support the area economically in agriculture, healthcare, and even grant-writing.
At the end of the discussion, the key take-away emphasized by all of the panel members was that North Carolinians need to retain a positive attitude when it comes to the state's economic outlook. A poll taken during the meeting indicated that 61-percent of the audience members do not believe that their children or grandchildren will be able to make a living in Southeastern NC, and 90-precent believe that the state is not doing enough to lure new businesses to the area. Dr. Jenkins leaves the audience with the idea that "if you change the way you look at things, the things you're looking at change." All the panelists in the end agreed that working together through collaborative efforts and partnerships to create opportunities, supporting education, and having an overall positive outlook are the key factors in making it through tough times in North Carolina.