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Watauga leaders discuss rural, broadband problems

BOONE — Funding models and broadband were the hot topics discussed by Watauga County leaders on Jan.

30 in a meeting organized by the North Carolina Rural Center. “We’re here for a conversation and we want to do most of the listening,” said Patrick Woodie, president of the N.C. Rural Center, which is based in Raleigh. “It’s time for rural N.C. to reclaim its own narrative.”

Woodie explained that the organization is holding these roundtable discussions in all of North Carolina’s 80 rural counties over the course of several months. A consensus among the group is that there’s often too much focus on the large urban areas of the state. Woodie said he wants to give rural North Carolina a more consistent voice with leadership in the federal and state level.

One statistic that Woodie mentioned is that since the Great Recession, 80 percent of job growth in the state has been in Wake and Mecklenburg counties. Woodie wants to “help that engine in the parts of the state where it’s not working.” “The problem is that there’s a lot of consensus on both sides of the aisle that rural economic development and the ‘rural/urban divide,’ which is a term I hate, is something they feel compelled to address,” Woodie said of the state leaders. “But you can’t get 10 of them to have consensus on how to address it.”

Watauga County Manager Deron Geouque feels like the current state funding model hurts Watauga County because it doesn’t fit into a category that gets good funding. “Watauga is unique and the problem is that we’re penalized for being unique,” Geouque said. “When it comes to funding, we get nothing, then the state wants to start manipulating sales tax distribution saying ‘let’s give it to the smaller, poorer counties.’ While it might be an initial assistance to those (small, poorer) counties, you’re hurting those counties that are the economic engines for the region, like Watauga County.” “My question is, who is going to hear our voice?

They don’t hear our voice in the General Assembly,” he continued. “They look at it like ‘oh, you’re Watauga County, if you need something you need to raise your taxes, you guys can do that,’ and they want to penalize us for being good fiscal stewards of our money.” Keith Deveraux, the High Country Workforce Development Board director, said that the state’s formula funding is hammering him and affects his ability to teach people who need the re-training for new modern workforce skills, mainly computer skills. “There’s an unequal balance,” Deveraux said of formula funding.

The subject of recruiting businesses into the state was also discussed, with several in attendance feeling like policymakers concentrate too much on recruitment. “The (North Carolina) Economic Development Partnership is concentrated on bringing big fish into urban areas, and while I understand why they do it, it doesn’t mean we have to like it,” Watauga County Planning and Inspection Director Joe Furman said. Woodie said the state needs to get serious about working with the organizations that are already here.

“I’m tired at everyone at the state level focusing on hitting that grand slam home run of Amazon, Toyota, Mazda and those companies all the while we’ve got the existing businesses in our communities we need to focus on,” Woodie said. Felicia Culbreath-Setzer, regional operations director of the Northwest Prosperity Zone as part of N.C. Works, said that the Department of Commerce is under-utilized.

Woodie said that there are a growing understanding and dialogue among leaders to avoid taking from richer counties and giving to poorer counties, but rather helping growth in both. The subject of broadband was discussed extensively, with several leaders talking about the difficulties of getting coverage for the more remote areas. “You think AT&T and Verizon and all them are going to come out here and spend that money for a small amount of return?

No, they’re not going to do that,” Geouque said. Furman said that there’s a gap in eastern Watauga County when it comes to broadband, pointing a finger at AT&T for that gap, and he said it’s getting worse. “They say there’s no return on investment and they don’t mind telling you so,” Furman said on his discussions with AT&T about coverage in eastern Watauga County.

Boone Area Chamber of Commerce President David Jackson said that from a tourism perspective, there are expectations among visitors from urban areas for WiFi and that there are big upfront costs with bringing high-speed internet to an area, which Jackson said the chamber is studying. Jackson also brought up a public safety aspect to help cut down response times to emergencies. Jane Lee Rankin, owner of Apple Hill Farm in Matney, said that SkyLine was able to get fiber-optic WiFi for the Valle Country Fair in Valle Crucis, which is her biggest retail day of the year.

Rankin, along with Jim Bryan of Farm Bureau and J&D Tree Farm said that WiFi is becoming more important as people show up with credit cards expecting to be able to pay on a Square, no matter how remote your location is. Geouque brought up how the nine public schools in Watauga County have high-speed broadband and that it can be a base for each community, noting that WCS is using more and more online-based learning. Jim Hamilton of the Watauga Cooperative Extension said that even seniors are getting secondary degrees through online programs, noting the growing need for high-speed internet regardless of demographics.

“Why not use Watauga as a guinea pig?” asked Jackson, explaining how the chamber did a study on broadband internet and the challenges of bringing it to all of Watauga County. Jackson also explained that SkyLine and Carolina West Wireless have been willing partners in the past. Other topics such as health, infrastructure and bus service were discussed by the group during the two-hour discussion.

Woodie brought up that in a few months, the N.C.

Rural Center will be launching a rural community development financial institution to help developing small businesses.

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