Ed. note: This blog is cross-posted from USDA.gov.
Both of us grew up in small towns, Kathleen in Greenfield, MA and Bob in Ancram, NY. From our own experiences, we understand the challenges and the importance of a strong rural economy.
We recently visited Brevard, a town of about 6,000 people in North Carolina’s Transylvania County. While there we held a White House Rural Council meeting at the Transylvania County Library with leadership from the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, the regional economic development commission AdvantageWest, business leaders from Asheville and Brevard, and several local elected officials. We released a report from the Partnership for Sustainable Communities, Supporting Sustainable Rural Communities, at Brevard College, which focuses on how the federal government can help rural areas to be economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable.
One theme that was discussed at the Rural Council roundtable was the need for communities to be solution oriented by setting priorities and realistic goals for the direction they want their region to head. In Transylvania County, about 1/6th of the residents used to work in the paper mill business, an industry that is no longer there. So the county is working within the region to figure out how they can build a sustainable community for the future, one that recognizes the great economic value of the water, farmland and forests in Western North Carolina.
Participants asked about how communities can continue economic growth with declining Federal, state and local resources. We spoke about the need for regional planners to get the right people around the table in order to create a clear vision in the community so that they can make the best use of Federal funding to form partnerships and leverage private sector development. Because ultimately, the economy in Brevard, like the small towns we grew up in, is linked to the rest of the region.
Our stop at Gaia Herbs, a certified organic grower and nationally known manufacturer of liquid herbal extracts, was a great example of how local economies can build on their regional assets. Gaia’s CEO told us how he turned his small business into a $22-million company through support from USDA Rural Development. The company is capitalizing on the conducive climate, ecosystem, and local workers’ experience with agriculture and manufacturing, to create jobs and support sustainable economic development.
At the Davidson River Village Superfund site we visited, which was where Ecusta Mill, a 525-acre paper manufacturing facility was located, there are now plans to provide homes, shopping as well as accommodations for visitors to the Pisgah National Forest. After the mill went out of business in 2002, EPA’s Region 4 office and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources partnered with a developer to clean up contamination at the site and prepare it for redevelopment. New development will create more than 2,800 permanent jobs in the retail, hospitality, and office sectors.
Manufacturing presents a great opportunity for our country. Exports and trade are our strengths and that hasn’t gone away. But our challenge, as mentioned at the roundtable, will be to create a skilled workforce. We need to reinvest in community colleges and vocational schools. If the American Jobs Act was passed, North Carolina would receive $675,700,000 in funding to support school infrastructures and as many as 8,800 jobs.
We’re taking what we learned in Brevard back to Washington. This visit is one of many that will help USDA, EPA, HUD, and DOT find creative ways to support economically vibrant, environmentally healthy rural communities and regional planning efforts through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. The USDA has Rural Development field offices and employees that can be a great resource to rural areas that are looking to find ways to create jobs and economic growth. EPA offers assistance through its brownfields and smart growth programs, with specific tools on EPA’s website. The Partnership has many resources that we’re eager to use to help communities across the country.
Kathleen Merrigan is USDA Deputy Secretary and Bob Perciasepe is EPA Deputy Administrator.