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By Taylor Knopf

Last year, folks at the NC Rural Center set out on a “Rural Road Trip” to visit all 80 of North Carolina’s rural counties. The goal: To find out what makes these communities tick and what they struggle with.

But also, to reframe the rural narrative.

John Coggin, NC Rural Center director of advocacy, described national news stories which feature dilapidated, old buildings with little context that talk about the rural-urban divide.

John Coggin. Photo courtesy: NC Rural Center

“[They write] about how our cities are growing and prosperous and everything good is happening there,’” he said. “And everything bad is happening in rural areas, which are declining and destitute, and ‘will someone turn the lights out when the last person leaves?’

“That’s just not the rural reality we see on the ground, especially in a county like Harnett, which is facing growth and vitality,” Coggin added. “We want to do a better job of telling that story.”

He also emphasized the importance of telling a consistent story to state and federal leaders about the needs and status of rural North Carolinians.

Coggin and others at the center are compiling a report of stories and observations from their tour, to be released in May ahead of “Rural Day” on May 29 at the General Assembly in Raleigh.

Last Wednesday, Coggin and NC Rural Center CEO Patrick Woodie stopped in Harnett County to talk to local government officials and business leaders at the Central Carolina Community College Health Sciences Center in Lillington.

Immediately, the conversation was dominated by the need for broadband access and how it relates to improving rural health.

‘To the last mile’

Lisa McFadden, the county’s assistant IT director, said about 15 percent of Harnett’s residents do not have access to broadband. And, overall, between 30 to 40 percent of the area in the county is unserved. This would make it difficult to expand neighborhoods and communities into these areas of the county.

North Carolina’s rural areas still have wide expanses of so-called white spaces, areas where there’s little or no connectivity. Map courtesy: NC Broadband Infrastructure Office/ NC League of Municipalities

McFadden told the story of one IT department employee who lives eight miles outside Lillington and about three miles from Erwin who “cannot get any access whatsoever.” She said he’s contacted providers who told him it would cost around $30,000 to extend broadband access to his home.

Coggin said the need for broadband has been a universal cry from almost every county he’s visited.

“When we were up in Christmas tree country, up in Avery country, we were talking to farmers and they have their business model down,” Coggin said. “But when someone comes up to the top of the mountain with their credit card in their hand and wants to buy a Christmas tree and there’s no broadband, they can’t sell them a Christmas tree. One farmer cannot solve the rural broadband issue by himself.”

Breaking healthcare trends

Mike Jones, administrator at Central Harnett Hospital, said the hospital is doing all right with its current access to broadband. However, he noted that the desire to use more telemedicine services to access specialists at the hospital will require a robust broadband network.

As the conversation shifted to Harnett County’s health care, all present agreed that Harnett has a good health care system, but people just don’t always use it. Instead, for decades, the trend for residents of Harnett was to drive to Raleigh, Sanford or Fayetteville for care.[symple_box color=”green” fade_in=”false” float=”center” text_align=”left” width=”80%”]Related story: Rural Broadband Needs Highlighted at Legislature[/symple_box]

Jones said the percentage of people that leave the county for work is about 65 percent. And the number of folks that leave for their health care is similar.

Central Harnett Hospital opened in 2013 and people are still discovering the new services.

Jones said the hospital is collaborating with Campbell University medical school and is in its second year of training young resident physicians in-county. The first year the hospital had 23 doctors training in the new program, and this year there are 43.

The problem is not that there isn’t access to care, Jones said. It’s that there needs to be a mindset change.

Due to its close proximity to the Triangle, Harnett County has fared better than some rural counties that have struggled to attract even one OB-GYN or pediatrician.

Education lags too

Others in the rooms echoed the need because students now frequently receive online homework assignments they are unable to complete. Public schools across North Carolina all have access to broadband, but their students might not have it at home.

Coggin noted that there is a call coming from the N.C. League of Municipalities to define and improve public-private partnerships in order to expand broadband access through to the last mile.

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Woodie told the Harnett County group that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle all agree that something needs to be done about the broadband issue.

“But there, not six of them that agree on any one thing,” he said. “It’s complex and big issue. We think there should be a comprehensive solution. We think we have to help them move toward consensus.”

Woodie brought up Minnesota as a good example of a state that has invested in broadband and has a program that’s been successful for multiple years now. And Ohio is looking to replicate Minnesota’s “Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program.”

John Roberson, executive assistant to the president at Campbell University, located in Harnett County, said the school pays extremely high fees to provide broadband for the campus.

“Which is difficult because these days students bring on average five devices and they never turn them off,” Roberson said.

Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf covers rural and mental health news. She previously wrote for The News & Observer as a politics and general assignment reporter. Before that, she worked at a small daily newspaper in southern...