Conference highlights rural development’s ups and downs

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Wilsonians joined with representatives from 82 other counties across the state for Rural Day on Tuesday.

The N.C. Rural Center event was a chance for officials to compare notes about local successes and challenges while learning about available programs and opportunities. Center Director of Advocacy John Coggin said the second annual event also provided an opportunity to share lessons learned along an 80-county tour by himself and center President Patrick Woodie.

“We met with leaders in each of the counties we serve,” Coggin said. “It was a chance to hear what is going well and what is keeping them up at night. We’ve got a 10-point strategy around comprehensive rural economic development, but we wanted to learn more about what the Rural Center can do and what advocacy we should be working on.”

Greg Godard, CEO of the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments, said he particularly liked hearing about success stories of small business owners from across the state and various Rural Center programs. Whirligig Park Executive Director Jeff Bell said he was eager to attend the event for the first time and was encouraged by discussions of how art can assist with economic development.

“I think the small business session reinforced what we’re doing with the Whirligig Park and the idea of creative place-making,” Bell said. “What the Whirligig Park has done and is doing to rejuvenate downtown Wilson is very closely related to economic development.”

One of the sessions also focused on broadband. Coggin said access to high-speed internet isn’t just for entertainment, but to help students with homework, access to health care in rural communities and so much more.

“Greenlight is a shining example of what can be done in rural North Carolina,” Godard said. “We have a distinct advantage compared to other rural counties in this state.”

Coggin said the success of Greenlight Community Broadband can be adjusted and replicated in other areas in conjunction with other efforts.

“Wilson is a success story when it comes to Greenlight, but we also recognize that the Wilson model won’t be successful for every municipality,” Coggin said.

Bell said he’d hoped to have an exhibition about the Whirligig Park at this year’s event, but he ran out of time to prepare. Having attended the event this year, he said he has a better idea of what to do next year to highlight the growth of art in historic downtown Wilson.