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Leaders discuss needs in rural communities

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ROCKY MOUNT — Government employees and leaders of community improvement associations from throughout the region gathered May 22 to hear about legislative efforts to improve broadband, health care and small business resources in rural communities.

“There can be a bleak picture for what rural life is like with dilapidated houses, trailer parks, abandoned cars and people who’ve given up hope, but we know that is not the case,” said Miles Kirksey, engagement coordinator for the N.C. Rural Center. “We come to an area like Rocky Mount and we see everyone engaged in community improvement. There are stories of success, of innovation and of resiliency coming out of these communities. We want to unite these rural voices and let you guys know about resources that are available to you.”

The Rural Center covers 80 counties in North Carolina, and the most prevalent issues that are raised among local leaders are access to broadband, health care and resources for small businesses. Center Director of Advocacy John Coggin noted that addressing those three areas can make significant improvements to residents of rural North Carolina’s quality of life.

Upper Coastal Plain Council of Governments Executive Director Robert Hiett noted access to high-speed broadband is among the most dire issues for development in Wilson, Nash, Edgecombe, Halifax and Northampton counties.

“Broadband impacts educational opportunities, career development as well as our economic growth,” Hiett said. “It is as important to a community as electricity.”

Coggin said cost is the No. 1 reason cited by rural residents who don’t have high-speed internet. The Rural Center is working to promote efforts to spur competition that would bring connections to all residents for a reasonable price. He noted there are several bills in the General Assembly working to improve broadband access in rural communities, but the 10-year time frame needs to be truncated.

“It is currently proposed to invest $150 million over 10 years, but that is too long of a period,” he said. “If we could do that over five years instead, we are not leaving communities waiting for 10 years on something they need today.”

Data maps also indicate communities with the least access to broadband also suffer from a shortage of health care providers, so the Rural Center is supporting efforts to increase the use and security of telemedicine.

“The conversation starts with access, but it doesn’t end there,” he said. “We also need to make sure our folks have access to affordable health insurance, but unfortunately we have a hug coverage gap in North Carolina.”

Rep. Greg Murphy, R-Pitt, was among a group of legislators who have proposed House Bill 655, which would provide affordable health insurance for working North Carolinians funded largely with federal dollars. Rural Center officials encouraged all of the attendees to contact legislators and voice support for efforts to improve resources for rural North Carolina.

“Let your voice be heard,” Coggin said. “That is the most important thing.”