There's a familiar story that many of us have come to passively accept in recent years about rural North Carolina. You know how this goes: It holds that time has passed these areas by; that they are beyond repair and without hope; and that anyone working on intentional solutions to improve these communities is a naïve dreamer.
This is an unfortunate state of affairs. For while it is true that we cannot re-create rural and small town North Carolina as it once was, we actually can take steps to chart new and better paths. When it comes to the economic destiny of North Carolina's rural areas, a capacity to be pleasantly surprised is not crazy: opportunities can appear and economies can turn around.
What is unlikely is that previous, working economies will return in all their earlier glory. Even if a community may hold onto its manufacturing sector, it will be a very different "animal," with a different market niche, production process, employment scale and skill requirements.
The one constant will be change.
We do not do a community any favor by shielding them from this or other unpleasant facts, unlikely scenarios, or more circumscribed hopes.
The hard truth of the matter is that the vast majority of struggling rural counties will not land a major manufacturer or some other kind of large private facility. In many cases, they will not halt their population decline. In many respects, they will not control their destiny.
It is possible, however, for small and rural communities to develop and pursue economic opportunities that will allow them to cope much more effectively with the 21st Century.
Rural communities and small towns can be good places to live and raise a family. They can excel at having decent schools, access to quality regional medical care, good natural amenities, modern public services, low crime, well-run nonprofit organizations, strong regional political alliances, more entrepreneurial initiative, and intelligent positioning within a larger multi-county economy.
This is a possible future.
But to make it a reality, our expectations, strategic planning, policies, educational approaches, attitudes, conversations, and politics must change as much as our economies.
Here are just a few of the changes in policy and attitude could help to usher in such a new and more hopeful era:
A deeper appreciation for and commitment to "lifetime education" and a commitment to increasing the number of local folk who hold degrees or occupational credentials.
A greater comfort with occupational change.
Expanded (but targeted) sharing of state revenues with local governments.
More equitable sharing of funds for K-12 education.
Greater attention to public management skills, social entrepreneurship, and leadership development
A priority on encouraging and prioritizing "homegrown" economic development.
Stronger public-private partnerships and greater employer "buy-in" for workforce development
Such changes, of course, will not come easily or overnight. They will require some important sea changes in the way all of us think about rural and communities and the future. If implemented, however, such shifts could help bridge the current "ingenuity gap" between the rapidly changing global economy and the public and not-for-profit sectors that will have to drive and implement much of the change on the ground.
In short, rural North Carolina can adjust to the modern realities that confront it, but only if state and local leaders rely upon what their heads to tell them about the future rather than just what their hearts tell them about the past.
William Schweke is a Senior Fellow at CFED in their Durham, NC office.