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  • Tina Toler-Keel Special to The News Reporter

N.C. Rural Center leaders visit Columbus County

The North Carolina Rural Center met with Columbus County leaders at the DREAM Center Friday as part of an 80- day tour to discuss the unique challenges and needs of each community and to work toward building an advocacy with the community and government. Patrick Woodie, president of the Rural Center, stated, “If you have seen one rural community, you have seen one rural community,” noting that each county and community has its own strengths, weaknesses, and needs. The Rural Center helps advocate for these needs.

Woodie said the center is still working hard to provide advocacy and be a voice between communities, the new governor’s administration, congress, and the new president’s administration.

Those who attended the meeting were asked to rank categories in the community that are going well. Shawn Maynor, mayor of Bolton, ranked getting broadband internet in Bolton at the top of the list.

Other top-ranking categories were agriculture and health care. Columbus County features several agriculture festivals that bring income to the area, including the Pecan Harvest Festival, the S t r aw b e r r y Festival and the Yam Festival.

According to Jennifer Holcomb, president of Columbus Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, new services such as a Levine Cancer Center and three pediatricians, with one more coming, will add to the improvement of health care. John Coggin, the Director of Advocacy, then asked the needs of the county that cannot be met strictly on a countywide level, leading to the need of state and federal help.

Water and sewer topped the list. Although cities have water and waste management, many rural areas of Columbus County do not have sewer systems.

Maynor says that “everyone wants services but no one wants to pay for them” and that the town has to have help “in order to provide clean drinking water.”

Another top need is education.

As for the need for more broadband access, Woodie told the audience about a letter he received from a parent revealing that, “it is now 9:30 on a school night and I’m sitting in McDonald’s parking lot with my two kids doing their homework.”

The importance of broadband involves schools as well as individual homes, he added.

Another issue with education is the low pay of teachers. Radene Caison says teachers can easily commute “right to Brunswick County where they can make thousands of dollars more than we can pay.”

Education is the biggest message the state and federal level needs to hear from Columbus County.

Andy Anderson said it is important to “make sure kids in rural communities get the same quality of education.

“It is becoming more competitive and we must prepare our rural students to be able to compete with those in urban communities.”

The Rural center focuses on three categories of helping citizens.

Leadership development is designed to work on a state scale level and on a regional level to produce “home grown leaders.”

The center has helped with more than $17 million in loans since 1989 with an average loan of $9,000. Startup loans for small businesses are one of the top lending programs the center offers.

The other two are programs working with the banking community to help financial institutions make loans they would not otherwise be able to make.

Woodie says the work with banks helped small businesses affected by Hurricane Matthew, with the center providing emergency bridge loans granting 20 loans to businesses to help recover from losses.

The center is also working on a longer-term loan program to bring new businesses into rural communities.

Coggin said the Rural Center Advocacy program focuses on “cultivating citizenship.” We are living in a “divided time,” he said.

Coggin said changes cannot come about until people work to unite the things that divide us and “build a network of people who care.”

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