Attracting younger generations is a key for small-town success


Board of Directors
NC Rural Center



What kind of support and help do you give to small towns?
We work with towns, counties, other organizations all around the state mostly on economic development but also leadership training.

Our primary effort is called REDI, which is Rural Economic Development Institute, where we take folks from small towns and help them learn how to be more effective as leaders in their rural community. We’ve been doing it for 27 years. We have almost 1,300 alumni now around the state, and many of the folks who are becoming mayors or heads of various organizations are in fact alumni of this group.

What drew your interest to small towns?
My wife and I moved from Virginia, from the Shenandoah Valley to Pink Hill, North Carolina, where my wife is from, to take care of her aging parents on their family farm in 2012. That brought me to a world I didn’t know existed. That’s what caused me to get involved in rural issues.

What are some of the issues for small towns?
The biggest issue in my mind is the fact that the young people often leave to find jobs. You don’t find many 20- and 30-year old couples or families that have stayed. Most of them seem to move to the urban areas for jobs and school and most of them don’t come back unfortunately.

What can the towns do about that?
My opinion is they need to invest in internet/broadband. I think if they make broadband available, some of these folks would actually come back and be able to work remotely, because if they have access to the good network, they would come back, I think, to raise their kids in some cases. Oftentimes they inherit significant properties when they come back. I think that broadband is probably the number one thing that I would emphasize.

What’s an example of a town that really got something out of working with the Rural Center?
There is a town called Rutherfordton that has been very involved with the Rural Center. They have developed a number of startup businesses that have succeeded. Often they’re food businesses, high-end food businesses, a lot of mail order. They actually won the community of the year last year from this organization. That’s an example of the benefit of being associated with this organization and taking advantage of the training and the opportunities to try and build an economy in their small town, which historically has been strictly tourism. But now they have these homegrown businesses, and tourism has increased, because now more people have heard of them.

Are you optimistic about small towns?
I am. I think like anything else, you’re going to see the pendulum swing back. I think people are, as they get older, as I’m older, you might get tired of the rat race. You’ve sold your company or you’re in a position to make a different choice in life. What a great idea to come back to a place, especially if you’re from there. There’s a lot of advantages to a small town especially if economics aren’t an issue for you in terms of employment or whatever. I think you’ll see the pendulum swing back a little bit, I really do.

What do you wish small town mayors and managers knew that they don’t know?
I find many of them to be very inexperienced and insular. They really don’t know what it’s like to live in DC or Richmond or North Carolina big cities—Charlotte and Raleigh. It’s really a lack of perspective. It’s a very narrow view of the world. That would be my number one criticism. You need to have a perspective beyond just your immediate area.

How would they get that broader perspective?
I think that they should figure out a way to spend a few days—maybe it’s even calling up a mayor in Arlington or Charlotte or some city nearby—and go spend some days and ask questions just like you’re asking me. Say, “Hey, what are your problems, what are you dealing with here?”

I think that would give them a perspective beyond just themselves driving and experiencing it without the benefit of having a local curator to help them understand what’s going on in that area.

What do you think about the future of small towns in Appalachia?
Appalachia’s obviously dealing with changes in coal and other economic things, but there’s great opportunity I think with the millennial generation. I think some of them might end up moving to some small towns. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Is there anything towns can do to attract millennials?
I think a robust broadband offering will surprise them at who might be interested in that. Particularly if they’re skilled workers who are working for—let’s say they’re working for Facebook or some other software company—all they really need is good access. They don’t actually go into the office. A lot of people don’t realize that. It’s a different world. It isn’t like a big factory where everyone went to the factory. It’s not like that at all now. I think distributed workforces and access to modern networks—I can’t think of anything that’s a higher priority, and it’s doable. It’s not like it’s an impossible thing, like building an interstate. You can put in a network.