Piedmont Triad Regional Council
What does the Piedmont Triad Regional Council do?
We provide support in our membership organization for small towns and counties across North Carolina. There’s 16 in North Carolina and we have the Triad region.
I’ve been a small town manager in two small towns in North Carolina before I started with the regional council. Of course we work with them, supporting them now through my current organization.
What were the most important things you learned as a town manager?
Some of it’s just relationships and relating to people in communities and being a part of the community in order to make a difference there. I think that there are tons of issues in small towns, but generally folks pull together to get things to happen there. It’s just having good relationships and understanding the community.
Is the town manager instrumental in getting people to work together?
I think so. There’s kind of that lynchpin for what’s happening between the local government—which is the council and things the town can do—and then joining that together with community groups, neighborhoods and non-profits and things. Sometimes I think the manager or the local government really has to be a key part in making those things happen.
What kind of support do you do?
We provide a lot of different services, everything from trying to help with low-income housing, aging issues in communities, economic development work, criminal justice work—we’ve been helping with pre-trial release and some of the opioid issues within our communities. We have a lot of expertise in different areas. What we hope to be is an extension of the staff and the community, so if they want to get some things done, some projects done, but they might not have that expertise, we provide that and can do it for a broad area.
What is the most popular request – what do they want from you?
Everybody wants grants. First is how can we get money, because obviously resources are a huge issue in a lot of small communities. The further away you get from an urban core, you start running into more and more issues with the resources with those small towns. A lot of the issues they deal with seem huge, and they feel like they aren’t really in a good place to deal with some of those, so we get a lot of requests for assistance to help write grants or find grants for things. Also, economic development, helping folks renew their small downtowns and main streets, make those vibrant again. We do workforce development, so helping them deal with their needs for attracting/retaining a skilled workforce and young people in their communities. We deal with a lot of different things from that standpoint.
I’ve always wondered why more small towns don’t hire a grant writer, because they’re going to pay for themselves and more.
I think they can, but I think the fear is a lot of times, you’ve got limited resources, and you’re trying to figure out what to do with those. If it comes down to, “Can we buy a police car this year or do we hire another police officer? Can we do lighting downtown or do we have a grant writer?” a lot of times those immediate needs are the things that really take hold in small towns. That’s why we try to help spread that cost out, so if we can do grant writing for a large number of communities, then it doesn’t cost them very much. A lot of times we’ll do it pro bono where we can.
I think you’re right, I think you’ve got to be engaged though. A lot of times as a manager, coming to a Rural Center conference, or going and dealing in the broader environment across the state and nationally for organizations that bring together a lot of those resources, you can do a lot of those things yourself. If you’re going to deal with the Rural Center and you want a grant or you want help with a project, you build those relationships with those folks there. It’s the same thing with most of the granting organizations that you have. A manager can do those types of things, it’s just they’ve got a lot of other things on their plate as well. If you can afford it, and you’ve got a person who’s skilled in grant writing, it’s always great to bring them in.
Are you optimistic about small towns?
Oh yeah, small towns are truly the heartbeat of our state, I think most of what’s happening in the United States. There are certainly challenges with small towns. I think we’ve seen all the issues from opioids to brain drain and some of those things—constrictions in population, decreasing population, young people leaving. But everything is cyclical and what we’ve kind of stressed to our folks is, in the past, these small towns were places where folks could live, work, enjoy life, go to church, take part in civic things, all in one place. That’s really what a lot of young people are looking for. They’re going to urban areas for that now, because they don’t feel like the jobs are there that they want, or some of the other things. But if you can build that resiliency, where somebody can do all those things, give them the basics like broadband, you know create a place where they can work.
As this younger generation starts moving into times when they’re having a family and child-bearing years, there are attractions back to these small communities. I think we’ll start to see that cycle come back in, and we’ve already seen that in some areas in Virginia, in Southwest Virginia, where some of these small towns like Abingdon have been able to turn the tide on that. And we’ve got some of our communities that are moving in that direction as well. If you create the environment that folks want to live in, they can be creative and they can make a living, then they’ll want to come back to these small towns.
Do you actually look at Abingdon as a good example?
I think that area has certainly turned things around. They are a lot like our area in the Piedmont Triad. Up there it is was coal and textiles, in our area it was furniture and tobacco. They’ve probably went actually further down than we’ve gone in our area from an economic standpoint, they went through some very difficult times. You look at key projects like the music that they have been so successful in pushing up in that area of Southwest Virginia. The Virginia Creeper trail, the Appalachian trail, they found some of those key things that are unique to that area that make them who they are, and promote them in a way that allows them to really attract more folks back in that area.
I was amazed when I took my wife to Abingdon, Virginia, to the Barter Theater on Valentine’s Day, and they have I think 17 inns in Abingdon, Virginia now, which is amazing when you look at that. They’ve found something they can build off of. I think the important thing is finding that genuine thing that you are, and that you can sell to folks on the outside that makes you unique that makes folks want to come there. I’ll also say they made some great investments because I think all those communities got high-speed broadband in very early on. If my life is on my telephone and I don’t have broadband or I don’t have good service, then I’m not gonna stay in that community. If I want to do business online and I don’t have those basic things that I need to do that business by having high speed internet, things like that, I can’t do it there. So I think they built a platform by having those basic services that folks need. So if I can come here and I love what you’re doing with music and I love the little downtown, then I can also sell things that I could go to a city and do but I could do the same thing here—then some of those folks are going to like that way of life and they’re going to stay there.
What do you most wish that mayors and town managers knew that they don’t know?
I wish they just knew a lot of times what they had going for them. I think that what they don’t realize, again what we try to stress over and over, it started with Green Communities, it’s moved toward resiliency, but again they’ve been successful in the past, and the same things that worked in the past can work again for them. It’s not going to be a huge textile mill that’s gonna hire 2,000 people, but it is a way of life and where people know each other, people can go to the store down the street. There’s a nice little downtown where they can go eat, they know the people when they go in there. That’s what people want, they want community that way. The phone, even though that’s great and you can be on a social community, it’s still nice to see people face to face, and I think these towns have a lot going for them.
A lot of times the issues seem too large, when you’re losing population and you’re losing tax base and you don’t have money. It seems like such a huge issue. It just comes down to connecting with people and doing one thing, then doing another thing. I think those steps get you where you need to be. Even though it seems like a daunting task a lot of times in rural communities, there’s nothing you can’t deal with if you just set a plan and go step by step.