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Mayors gather in Greenville, examine rural-urban divisions

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Author at the North Carolina Metropolitan Mayors Coalition Julie White, watches the live display of a heart surgery on a cadaver during the Mayors Coalition Tour at the the Vidant Robotic Surgery Center Thursday, May 18, 2017.

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Michael Abramowitz
The Daily Reflector

Friday, May 19, 2017

Greenville Mayor Allen Thomas had a rare opportunity Thursday to showcase Greenville and its burgeoning economic growth for more than a dozen of his peers, including those from the state’s largest cities, as Greenville hosted the quarterly meeting of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition.

A tour of the city organized by the coalition highlighted local investments being made in transportation, downtown development and parks to stimulate private investment. Stops along the way included the Innovation Design Lab operated by East Carolina University’s Office of Innovation and Economic Development, the surgical robotics lab and training center at ECU’s East Carolina Heart Institute and Vidant Medical Center’s James and Connie Maynard Pediatric Hospital. 

The group of mayors, representing more than 5 million state residents, also toured some of the revitalization efforts in downtown Greenville and other successful economic development projects and made a bus trip for a similar visit to Kinston.

“We want to show the mayors the eastern North Carolina experience, the things we champion here and some of our challenges in the region we call ‘Quad East,’” Thomas said. “We’re really one state together. What happens in each of these cities impacts the others. In the modern economy, Greenville, Goldsboro and Kinston have to work together to compete in the national and global economy.”

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said the current statewide conversation emphasizes the rural-urban divide.

“We thought it was important for us as a large coalition of mayors to go visit some smaller cities and look at eastern North Carolina to see how that rural-urban divide can be bridged and create a win-win situation for all of North Carolina,” Manheimer said.

The Asheville mayor acknowledged a nationwide trend of jobs moving to cities, what she called the urbanization of the job market.

“More than ever, cities have to serve as regional economic hubs and become the platform for jobs for the entire region,” Manheimer said. “That’s probably true for Greenville, and it’s certainly true for Asheville.”

While most people think of tourism as the largest economic driver for Asheville, with 10 million tourists visiting each year, that distinction actually goes to its health care industry, the mayor said. The largest city in western North Carolina sees about 50,000 people commuting there daily to work, Manheimer said. 

“We have to learn how to recruit employers to our area to benefit and provide high-quality jobs for all the people in the region,” she said. “It’s important to provide a good quality of life for the people in the region, and that attracts employers and jobs.”

If mayors of large and small communities alike collectively understand the importance of regional economic development, that might not be as true within the state Legislature, Manheimer said. She could only hope that the topic will grow in the legislature and become more of a priority for legislators to understand the synergies of workforce education and the growing interconnectivity between the cities and smaller communities.

“I worked in the legislature for four years and I think it’s a little harder to see that from there. Mayors have a unique perspective because we’re at ground level, talking to either established employers looking to grow or new employers looking to locate in or near our cities,” she said. “One thing that’s benefitted Asheville is to work with our neighbors in Haywood County or Henderson county to be more powerful as a group to recruit employers. We recognize that if those counties get a new employer, that’s a win for us, too. It forces us to look at the relationship of rural and urban neighbors and work together to uplift the entire area.”

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts said she found meetings with other mayors helpful for her work at home.

“Even where there are differences from one city to another, I find many things we have in common, whether it’s police-community relations, issues of violence, clean water and other environmental stresses,” Roberts said. “I always find that I learn things from the other mayors. We also have a stronger voice when its many cities speaking together about the things that matter to all of us.

During a luncheon at ECU’s Harvey Hall, N.C. House Majority Leader John R. Bell (R-Craven, Greene, Lenoir, Wayne) updated the mayors on the current legislative session and the budget recently received from the N.C. Senate. He projected — “hopefully” — that the long session might conclude by July 1.

“The longer we stay in Raleigh, the crazier things can get for North Carolina,” Bell joked. “The drop in statewide unemployment from 11.3 in 2010 to the current 4.9 percent is 100 percent because of the things you’re doing in your cities, what county commissioners are doing and the partnerships you have with us in Raleigh. Every day now we’re announcing new jobs, whether in rural North Carolina or our metropolitan areas. We continue to look at our policies to either remove updated ones or move others forward.”

Contact Michael Abramowitz at mabramowitz@reflector.com or 252-329-9507.

 

Members of the N.C. Metropolitan Mayors Coalition gathered Thursday in Greenville for their quarterly meeting. In attendance were:

• Allen Thomas, Greenville

• Lance Olive, Apex

• Esther Manheimer,  Asheville

• Gloristine Brown, Bethel

• Ian Baltutis, Burlington

• Jennifer Roberts, Charlotte

• Chuck Travis, Cornelius

• Bill Bell, Durham

• Chuck Allen, Goldsboro

• B.J. Murphy, Kinston

• Bobby Compton, Mooresville (Commissioner)

• Dana Outlaw, New Bern

• David Combs, Rocky Mount

• Sam Gaskins, Sanford

• Bill Saffo, Wilmington

• Allen Joines, Winston-Salem 

• N.C. House Majority Leader Bill Bell (guest speaker)

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