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Posted on Wed, Mar. 24, 2004

`Jewels of North Carolina'

Robeson County group is working to develop its economy from within

From remarks by the Rev. Mac Legerton, executive director of the Center For Community Action in Lumberton, in the March newsletter of the N.C. Justice and Community Development Center:

With its large Native American, European American, African American, and growing Latino population, Robeson County is the most equitably diverse rural county in the nation. Yet it lost more than 10,000 jobs from 1993 to 2003. Just at the point in its history when its grassroots citizens had achieved inclusive and equitable representation in governance and were ready to turn more attention to economic development, the economic base of the county was ripped out from under it.

The manufacturing and tobacco industries had been the backbone of the county's private sector for the past 50 years. With the passage of federal trade policies that not only allowed but also encouraged overseas investments and the closing of U.S. factories and farms, the county's economy was deconstructed, its legs cut out from under it.

The situation in Robeson County is all the more tragic because of the decades of successful, collaborative work of its citizens to create a greater degree of equal opportunity and equity in both its public and private sectors. Led by the Center For Community Action with support from the N.C. Council of Churches, citizens are pursuing a proactive and positive response to the job losses. The center hopes to reconstruct the county's economy based on the principles and practices of small business and sustainable development.

But how? Federal and state policy may focus on public works projects or large corporate sponsorships. The problem is that, in the rush to fix our state's economic crisis, we, too, may overlook the very key to our past economic success and not seriously invest in and develop "the jewels of N.C."

Our jewels are our diverse people and the diversity of our locally-owned and operated small business economies. Our rural people and small business owners and workers have withstood the major shifts in economic policy throughout U.S. history and remain the bedrock of our economy.

In our rush to find quick solutions for economic reconstruction, we in North Carolina may repeat the mistakes of the past. We may invest in yet another top-down approach to development that utilizes massive public funds for large business development. Sooner or later, it, too, may become just as vulnerable to national and international trade competition. We need a mixed economy, but we also need to make our best and most significant investment in what we know works best.

We in Robeson County have discussed these important issues for two years. During the fourth week of every month, we hold two meetings -- one for unemployed workers at night and one for professional economic developers and service providers during the day. We have begun to identify, shine, and cut our own raw "jewels," combining our life experiences and understanding of what has worked and works best in our rural county. We are beginning to share our understanding and wisdom, and we will do so with legislative committees in Washington and Raleigh.

The vision and solutions for the economic crisis in rural North Carolina and the nation must come from our rural communities. It is past time that we care enough about ourselves to dig deep into our understanding and step up to the plate before it is too late.

For The Record offers commentaries from various sources. The views are the writer's, and not necessarily those of the Observer editorial board.

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