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Gov. Cooper says that rural investments are key to statewide growth

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Courtesy of Region A
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Governor Roy Cooper spoke at the WNC Rebounding Stronger Summit at the Cherokee Convention Center on the Qualla Boundary.

This week more than 120 regional leaders gathered on the Qualla Boundary to discuss the economic development challenges and solutions facing rural western North Carolinians. Russ Harris, executive director of the Southwestern Commission explains that the WNC Rebounding Stronger Summit was designed to bring rural leaders together to address how the region is recovering economically from COVID-19.

“It was intended to be looking at the situation of where we are and what issues are rising to the top as we start to emerge to some degree from the pandemic,” said Harris. Ironically, the conference was rescheduled twice because of spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Harris says a presentation by the NC Rural Center presented three main challenges facing rural areas in Western North Carolina: leadership, capacity and economies of scale.

“You know as we live in a region where people are getting older and leaders are moving on to other things. We struggle a little bit to find people to take their place, to step in and to be willing to serve and to provide that leadership,” said Harris.

Economy of scale is the root of many issues such as broadband, employment and others explains Harris.

“The market doesn’t solve a lot of our problems where there isn’t enough return on investment for broadband companies to serve everywhere in our region, there isn’t enough return on investment to go put a major housing development anywhere in our communities,” explains Harris.

During the event, Harris says the group dug into nine factors can drive change in the region but one stands out.

“Number one we need to take care of our communities and develop them to be the kind of places that we want to live in so that we can attract other people who want to live there,” said Harris.

Harris says the local housing consortium, incoming opioid settlement funding as well as state and federal broadband funding are also key pieces to solving these problems in the future.

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Courtesy of Region A
Principal Chief Richard Sneed speaks at the WNC Rebounding Stronger Summit

He also highlighted partnering with community colleges and addressing rural healthcare inequities as key issues.

“It’s harder to get access to healthcare than it was 20 years ago. That’s an issue for us in a region that’s aging as fast as we are. People need that access,” said Harris, who also noted this is an economic issue.

However, the biggest issue is still how the region recovers from the pandemic.

“The driver of all drivers is how we come out of covid. We’re in a different place with COVID-19 than we were two years ago but we are still dealing with it. How we deal with that is going to be one of the things that determine whether or not we rebound in a positive way from this,” said Harris.

Governor Roy Cooper was among the speakers that met on the Qualla Boundary at the Cherokee Convention Center. He said 83 percent of economic initiatives created in the past few years by his administration have been in rural communities.

“When we invest in rural communities, we strengthen the entire state,” said Cooper in a press release.

Other speakers included Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard Sneed, Western Carolina University Chancellor Kelli Brown, Managing Partner of Economic Leadership LLC Ted Abernathy and President of the NC Rural Center Patrick Woodie.

The event was hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, the Southwestern Commission Council of Governments, and Land of Sky Regional Council.

Lilly Knoepp serves as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina. She is a native of Franklin, NC who returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.