Taking the Field: Opportunity in Crisis

Paul Meyer, NCLM Executive Director

It has been said in different times, in different ways, under different circumstances: Crisis brings opportunity, if you are willing to seize it.

The last year has been a crisis. It has, hopefully, forced all of us to recognize the importance of human connection, helped us see that we still have work to do to create an equitable and just society, and that—in the words of Lincoln—democracy is always about “the unfinished work.”

What the year 2020 also presented us with is a sobering picture of the difficulties faced by North Carolina’s rural communities. The pandemic brought into plain, clear light just how inadequate investments have been to meet the needs of those in our rural towns.

That is the case whether it is investments in broadband, now a necessity for children doing schoolwork and parents forced to work from home, or that in aging water and sewer infrastructure burdening towns that experienced COVID-19 as just another in a series of threatening blows.

As distressing as the time has been, we now come to a point where we see the light, with vaccines that will hopefully stamp out or at least severely weaken the grip of the virus.

We should also see the above challenges as opportunities.

The pandemic taught us that many people can live and work far from major cities, given adequate broadband, other types of infrastructure that connect them to the world, and the amenities that make for a great quality of life.

Meanwhile, the federal American Rescue Plan—which NCLM members and staff worked for months to help achieve with conversations with our congressional representatives and outreach to media to explain the needs created by COVID-19—will bring $1.3 billion in direct assistance to North Carolina cities and towns. Another $5 billion will flow to the state.

This assistance represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity. It is one-time money and should be treated as such. That doesn’t mean that it can’t be invested in ways that reap benefits for years come, whether that be through broadband backbone, water and sewer, transportation networks, or amenities that make communities attractive.

In our larger cities, investments that ease transportation amid population growth and that maintain quality of life are essential.

But for that potential to be realized, for this crisis to turn into opportunity for all areas of the state, municipalities need a real partnership with state government, a commitment to work together in ways that can make the most of these investments.

The N.C. General Assembly took a great step forward in 2020 by creating the structure to address water and sewer needs, establishing the Viable Utility Reserve. Gov Roy Cooper’s administration has now created a criteria to determine how to prioritize individual utility systems. But the money to build out needed infrastructure and promote regionalization and other solutions has not yet been dedicated to the reserve.

State legislators also have yet to take the needed steps to allow cities and towns to use their assets—including coming federal dollars—to develop innovative public-private partnerships so that businesses and homes have fast, reliable connections.

It would simply be a tragedy if, given these federal dollars, communities were unable to spend them on their most pressing need because legislators kept listening to the hollow, broken promises of the major telecom companies. It would be worse still if towns and cities were unable to tap some of the available federal money because of North Carolina’s strict laws protecting these de facto monopolies.

Regardless of the challenge, turning crisis into opportunity will require that all levels of government work in common purpose, and that we don’t allow greed, turf battles, or ideology to get in the way of addressing what we should all see now as the greater good for our citizens.