Monday, February 12, 2018

Rural minded governors can make a difference

Yesterday, the Roanoke Times published an op-ed written by Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. In the op-ed, Northam discusses a lot of themes that are frequently discussed here. He talks about people growing up in rural Virginia and then having to settle elsewhere because of the lack of economic opportunity available to them. He relates his own upbringing on Virginia's Eastern Shore and his decision to settle in Hampton Roads, which as he notes is close to home "but not the same." He then goes on to talk about the need to invest in infrastructure, including broadband, in order to ensure the future economic viability of rural Virginia. He notes the duty of the governor to represent all of Virginia and that he represents "people in Russell County just as much as ... people in Alexandria."

Northam's dedication to rural issues is admirable and reminiscent of the governor of the state to his immediate south, North Carolina's Roy Cooper. Now in his second year as governor, Cooper recently announced the beginning of the "Hometown Strong" initiative, which will see the state government work with local officials and non-profit leaders to develop and complete projects as well as identify their long term needs. Like Northam, Cooper also mentioned the need to develop and improve rural infrastructure, including broadband. Cooper, a native of Nashville, also noted the personal impact of this initiative.

North Carolina and Virginia are similar in many ways. Both are coastal states in the Upper South, have growing urban centers, world-class flagship public universities (UNC and UVa), world class land grant universities (NC State and Virginia Tech), booming tech centers (based in Northern Virginia and Research Triangle Park), and--along with Florida--are the only true electoral battleground states in the South. They also share a common historical link. North Carolina's predecessor government, the Albemarle Settlements saw its first governor appointed by the Colonial Governor of Virginia. In fact, many early North Carolina settlers were Virginians who were migrating to the south.

North Carolina and Virginia have also been leaders in forging a New South, a South that is defined by its brains and not its manufacturing or agricultural might. The evidence of this is fairly obvious. In Durham, I have seen old tobacco warehouses filled with office space. In Charlotte, glistening skyscrapers now fill spaces that were once hubs of shipping agricultural goods on the railroad. In Northern Virginia, tech companies and government contractors drive the growth that has turned old farming towns into suburban sprawl. However, as Northern Virginia, Charlotte or the Triangle grow, it is important that we do not forget the people who are still in those rural spaces and are being left behind. In the old economy, the rural spaces supported the urban spaces; farms in rural North Carolina provided the tobacco that sat in the warehouses in Durham and the agricultural goods that were shipped out of Charlotte. For many rural spaces in North Carolina and Virginia, the economic successes of the state at large have done little to help them partially because the symbiotic relationship between rural and urban appears to be lost. This phenomena isn't limited to North Carolina and Virginia however. As I noted here back in November, the link between rural and urban also helped rural New England grow during the Industrial Revolution. Based on their words, it seems that Northam and Cooper are well aware of that and are working to solve it.

The future of rural America is going to depend on leaders who have a personal investment in rural communities and are willing to work to ensure that they remain viable. I am cautiously optimistic about the futures of rural North Carolina and Virginia and hope that Cooper and Northam can deliver on their promises to their home communities.

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