The present state of North Carolina is wrestling with the dilemma of the “the two North Carolinas.” As America rapidly transitions into a new economy, the past offers no road map for the future. Nor are the think tanks of prominent futurists and economists. Manufacturing is caught in the middle.
Raleigh News and Observer columnist Rob Christensen recently had a thoughtful article about a trend that is bothering a lot of Republican legislators from rural areas. The so-called “brain drain” from smaller communities to the successful urban areas where higher paying jobs for skilled people are replacing opportunities in towns like Hickory, Rockingham, Wilson, High Point, Shelby and dozens of others. They may be the victim of the state’s success at attracting sophisticated technology and biomedical companies to Charlotte, Raleigh, and to some extent Winston Salem-Greensboro.
Starting with early 20th century, North Carolina industrialized “in a gentle way” with textiles, apparel, furniture and tobacco mills that spread out in small communities across the state, Christensen writes. In the mid-1990s, there were 300 hosiery companies, many of them employing a few dozen people, operating in 38 counties. Then came NAFTA, globalization, and massive job layoffs. The comfortable lifestyle for 30,000 hosiery company families was threatened. Tens of thousands of textiles and furniture jobs disappeared.
Some legislative leaders feel the state needs to help small counties and towns recover their losses. Sen. Harry Brown of Onslow, power chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, feels too much state money for new business incentives goes to Wake and Mecklenburg Counties, each experiencing double-diet growth over the past 10 years. But he and other lawmakers cannot answer this question: How do you convince a company to set up operations in an area where their employees do not want to live?
A new study by the Brookings Institution, a renown Washington DC think tank, found that smaller cities have had a much more difficult time recovering from the Great Recession. The survey found that between 2009 and 2015, private employment grew almost twice the rate in metropolitan areas with 500,000 or more people than those with 80,000 to 215,000. It also found that income grew almost 50 percent more in larger areas.
Eduardo Porter, a New York Times columnist, wrote “Bigger cities are more productive. They are more innovative. They draw better educated people by offering them higher wages. They develop a richer variety of industries.”