09/13/11 — Researcher: Eastern N.C. needs to find new direction

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Researcher: Eastern N.C. needs to find new direction

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on September 13, 2011 1:46 PM

With its agriculture backbone and budding cities, many residents of eastern North Carolina would say that the economic and social structures of the counties east of Interstate 95 are unique to the region.

UNC-Chapel Hill professor Ferrel Guillory agrees, although he thinks shifts in Wayne and surrounding counties that bring in young professionals will be vital for survival in a post-recession economy.

Guillory was the keynote speaker for the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce's recent business seminar, "The Future of Eastern NC." Although he said his presentation was not an economic development plan, he hoped the items he presented from years of research would resonate with the 40 or so chamber members who gathered at Lane Tree Golf Club for the lecture.

His presentation was a summary of a research paper he wrote while collaborating with North Carolina's Eastern Region, an economic development organization based in Kinston, and showed a lack of population growth in the past century within the eastern region compared to areas of the state to the west.

Identifying Greenville as the east's future, Guillory envisioned a region where cities would quit competing and instead work together to develop the area as a whole. Supporting East Carolina University in Greenville was one step toward a united region, he said, especially as the state increasingly needs a workforce that is more highly educated.

"With the globalization and economic shifts ... individual places can't go at it alone," he said before his lecture. "Town by town competition doesn't work anymore. You need regional efforts to advance."

Turning to Goldsboro, Guillory said the city needed to find and embrace its own identity.

"Goldsboro needs to see its place in the fabric of the region," he said, adding that city officials need to find ways to enhance the area's assets while contributing to the region's development as a whole.

Guillory said the strength of eastern North Carolina is its collection of substantial metropolitan areas, and each area's distinct history, culture and community, but the shift away from an agrarian society has forced the region into a crossroads.

Guillory cited census data from 1980, which was the last census in which more of the state's population was in rural areas than in urban areas, as evidence that the state has shifted away from farming as its main enterprise, noting that those areas in the state which have flourished have a robust supply of young professionals.

He said cities east of the I-95 corridor have had difficulty attracting young, creative entrepreneurs and cited the fact that after high school graduation, many residents go to college and don't return.

"Our basic findings were that the cities in the region need to have young professionals with a stronger voice in the future of North Carolina," he said.

During his presentation, Guillory cited the results of polls for which more than 1,800 individuals in eastern North Carolina were interviewed. The answers showed stark contrasts between the public's perception of the future of the region and how they felt about living there.

According to his report, 60 percent of residents and 66 percent of residents between the ages of 18 and 44 felt the region was on the wrong track, although 71 percent of residents and 64 percent of those aged 18 to 44 felt the region was a good or excellent place to live.

By comparison, 70 percent of those polled in the Triangle responded that they felt their region was on the right track, Guillory said.

He also showed statistics that showed residents felt local governments had the most responsibility for developing a good atmosphere for economic and social growth, although in the east local governments had invested the least into activities and had spent the least amount on education. Eighty-seven percent of those polled cited education as a problem in the eastern region.

Guillory painted a picture of the public perception as a disconnect between young professionals and civic life, although they were hopeful about the region's future in spite of their concerns.

Investment in the areas that attract young professionals and a focus on regional development rather than furthering the economy of individual cities, he said, will allow for more growth in the east. Connecting more of the rural areas to metro areas and the growth of Greenville would likely ripple out and aid in the development of other towns and cities.

Still, Guillory cautioned those at the seminar that this was no silver bullet, nor was it even what he considered an economic development plan.

"It's just a set of ideas that grew out of the concerns of the residents of the east," he said.