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Rural Carolinas communities get boost

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By Danielle Jackson

A primarily African-American community in South Carolina launched programs to train health professionals and truck drivers, prepare students for entry-level factory jobs, and boost community development.

A group in southeastern North Carolina is cultivating alternative crops.

And an alliance in western North Carolina has created individual development accounts to help residents build wealth, and leadership-training programs in entrepreneurship, economic development and credit counseling.

These communities are among 21 sites in the Carolinas that have received funding from The Duke Endowment in Charlotte as part of a $10.6 million program to revive economically depressed rural communities in the two states.

“Lives have been changed, and people who were experiencing feelings of hopelessness now are paying bills, buying cars and seeing hope for the future,” says Gene Cochrane, president of the Endowment.

Launched in 2001 and known as the Program for the Rural Carolinas, the initiative aims to help communities strengthen their leadership and build collaborative efforts needed to tap into their underlying resources to spur economic revival.

Empowering communities

The idea has been to empower communities to better themselves by providing basic educational resources, job training and free or low-cost access to experts throughout the U.S.

With the loss of farming and manufacturing jobs in the face of global competition – as well as the decline of the tobacco industry – numerous studies in recent years have called for boosting the region’s workforce, leadership and economic infrastructure to equip it to better compete in the 21st century.

“The project has had a tremendous impact on how people view themselves,” says Milton Troy, former chair of South Carolina’s Marion County Collaborative Action Network, which has since created a community-development corporation and small-business incubator, and offered earned-income tax credits for poorer segments of the county’s population.

Key to the Endowment’s initiative, Cochrane says, have been efforts to help rural communities create diverse leadership groups that no longer are limited to the “economic elite.”

Those efforts have helped fill a gap in economic-development leadership, he says, and the new leadership groups have driven local economic-development initiatives with the technical advice of experts provided through the Endowment and MDC, a Chapel Hill think-tank that has managed the initiative.

While the leadership-development strategy has worked in many communities, Cochrane says, pulling different groups from the population was challenging.

Many groups, he says, had preconceived notions of what the initiative would do and how it would affect them.

Working together

But once the growing pains subsided, groups in many communities were able to come together and work in a collaborative environment through partnerships with local governments, public and private organizations, and community colleges, Cochrane says.

At the Colleton Improvement Collaborative, a nonprofit in Walterboro, S.C., that was formed as a result of the initiative, for example, the goal was “to provide education and job-skills training for people basically left behind by the economy of our community,” says Michael Coker, project coordinator.

When the collaborative was created, he says, members looked at the needs of community to determine which segment of the population needed help and how to reach those people.

“We looked at the high rate of high-school dropouts, which is probably over 50 percent here,” he says. “From that, we looked at putting a program in place to pull back these people and get them motivated and targeted toward at least getting their [graduate equivalency degrees].”

In Colleton and several other communities, leaders held discussion groups and leadership classes at area churches and advertised for the classes in local media outlets to make it more accessible for participants.

Many people often lack access to transportation or might see visiting a community college as intimidating, experts say.

The Colleton initiative has collaborated with an area hospital to provide additional training for certified nurse assistants, and has seen 112 out of 120 students graduate.

“That’s a 75 percent employability rate,” Coker says.

Other communities have had similar goals, from providing leadership training to offering assistance for small-business owners.

Making a difference

While the numbers might seem small, the impact of the initiative has been great for the rural communities that have participated, organizers say.

Through the Randolph County initiative in North Carolina, about 100 participants have participated in a basic leadership program to help them better community issues and acquire the skills effective leaders must have, says Janet Hughes, program coordinator.

The Randolph County effort also recently developed a Small Business Center at Randolph Community College.

The Lower Orangeburg/Upper Dorchester-Shady Grove initiative, a primarily African-American community in South Carolina, was able to launch certified-nurse-assistant and patient-care technician programs, establish a pre-employment manufacturing-training program to prepare students for entry-level jobs at area plants, provide truck-driving classes, and create a community development corporation.

The Northwest Alliance – composed of Ashe, Alleghany and Wilkes counties in western North Carolina – has offered leadership-training programs, courses in entrepreneurship and economic development, credit counseling, and individual development accounts.

Columbus County in North Carolina has had success working with alternative crops through agriculture, a major source of economic development in the area, organizers say.

“The idea was to look at not only the stereotypical, down-and-out, long-term welfare recipients, but also to include those displaced by their jobs through the changing economy, or those unable to secure a job due to limited resources,” says Sam J. Scott, director of the initiative and senior associate with MDC, which focuses on economic and workforce development in the South.

Looking ahead

Many of the communities are developing or continuing with programs once funding is complete.

The initiative in Marion County, S.C., has developed a community foundation.

The Shady Grove initiative plans to develop a nonprofit to carry out its work.

Colleton has created a small-business development resource center for the county.

And Randolph Community College has begun fully funding its new Small Business Center.

“We are hoping that the success will continue after Duke Endowment funding is no more,” Hughes says. “We’re trying to make these affordable programs that can be done with minimal donations, such as from the chamber of commerce or a local church, to keep them going.”

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