When community leaders launched the Program for the Rural Carolinas in Columbus County, N.C., they called their effort “Discover Columbus.” The name defined their goal: In considering the needs of their economically struggling county, they’d discover its potential.
On the state’s southeastern border, this coastal plain area was ranked by the N.C. Department of Commerce as one of the state’s most economically distressed counties. In 2001, it had a poverty rate of 20.5 percent, nearly double the state rate. Its per capita income ranked 73rd of 100 counties.
But through Discover Columbus, community leaders would focus on the area’s rich history and natural beauty. They’d acknowledge weaknesses, but also find strengths.
Columbus Regional Healthcare System in Whiteville and its community-based partnership, Healthy Carolinians, launched the project. A grassroots team divided into three groups to come up with a vision for positive change.
“One thing about the Program for the Rural Carolinas: It involved everybody,” says Deborah Albritton, the former director of Health Carolinians who provided management and oversight for Discover Columbus. “It brought a diverse group of people around the same table talking about issues and needs of the county.”
The leadership development team encouraged new leaders and rural entrepreneurs.
The eco-tourism team explored business opportunities and created a plan to capitalize on the county’s farms, lakes, parks, wildlife and scenic rivers.
The agri-business team helped farmers discover opportunities for advancement.
Looking back, participants see many successes.
Through Program for the Rural Carolinas, 15 people participated in a comprehensive, countywide leadership development program.
The Columbus County Tourism Bureau was able to facilitate new self-guided tours and enhance a Web site.
The agri-business team led training workshops on risk management and helped revitalize a county farmers market. It encouraged farmers to try alternative crops, such as paw paws, mushrooms, strawberries and organic fruits and vegetables. It helped launch a regional growers marketing cooperative.
Albritton describes the Program for the Rural Carolinas as a “sparkplug” for the community. Even though the grant money ended, she says “seeds were planted” and projects continued.
“Obviously, a bunch of jobs have been lost here – maybe 2,500 over a short period – so it was easy for people to focus on the negative. But if you turn that around and have them focused on ‘Ok, what do we have,’ you can look at things from a different angle. That was one of the program’s most powerful results: It gave hope back to the community.”
Community leaders say that by the end of the Discover Columbus Rural Carolinas in the spring of 2007:
- Nearly 100 area farmers had participated in risk management and entrepreneurship training.
- 6 farmers had received help obtaining nearly $65,000 in specialty crop start-up grants.
- More than 50 people had attended a tourism summit.
- 15 people had participated in a countywide leadership development program.
- More than 12 entrepreneurial businesses were developed.
Lin B. Hollowell III
Director of Health Care
Robert R. Webb III
Director of Rural Church