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Rural boost

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By Ret Boney

About 50 struggling rural communities in North Carolina will receive a total of $14.6 million in state funds, expected to create over 4,500 new jobs, the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center says.

“Here’s an opportunity for rural North Carolinians to get up tomorrow morning and see something they haven’t seen in a while – hope,” says Billy Ray Hall, the center’s president. “We need hope in our rural areas.”

In July, state lawmakers created the $20 million “N.C. Economic Infrastructure Fund,” and asked the center to distribute the money to stimulate business development and job growth in rural and economically distressed communities.

Over the last four years, more than 600 plant closings were announced in rural counties, says the state’s Employment Security Commission, closing that led to job loss, and often to general economic decline in local communities.

Lawmakers envisioned the investment would generate 1,500 new jobs and 130 start-up or expanded businesses, and asked the center to concentrate on water and sewer systems, new business and technology resource centers, rehabilitation of vacant small-town buildings, and research and development projects.

“Those jobs are going to be there within 24 months, or the money will come back,” says Hall, referring to commitments that grantees made to creating jobs as a condition of funding.

The center made a total of $10.7 million in grants to 34 communities for water and sewer improvements, which the center estimates will yield 3,204 jobs.

Cleveland County, in southwestern North Carolina, was awarded $500,000 to fund sewer lines to support a new company and its 325 additional jobs in a community in which one in 10 people is unemployed, the center says.

Two counties received $400,000 grants to create business and technology centers, sites that will provide technology services and facilities, including high-speed Internet access, support services for entrepreneurs and small businesses and telecommuting capabilities, efforts that should create 160 new jobs, Hall says.

Buildings in 17 communities, including vacant historic structures and abandoned factories, most of them in towns with populations under 5,000, will be renovated using grants totaling $2.9 million, investments the center says will bring 1,168 jobs to these small communities.

The Burley Marketing Center in Asheville, the state’s only competitive auction center for burley leaf, will receive $250,000 to continue its efforts.

“North Carolina is a can-do state,” said Jim Black, co-speaker of the N.C. House.  “A rising tide floats all boats. When some part of North Carolina is in trouble, we all row together and make it happen.”

The Rural Center is accepting applications for the remaining $5 million.

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