We remain the ugly stepchild

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 13, 2003

We’ve all seem ’em during our travels in and out of the Roanoke-Chowan area. Plastered in bold, white letters on a big, green background are words to the effect – You are now entering the Northeastern North Carolina Economic Development Region.

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon – or for that matter, it doesn’t even take the mindset of TV character Jethro Bodine – to read between the lines of that roadside signage. What it really means is that you are entering the poorest area of North Carolina. Oops, I mean the most economically challenged region of the Tar Heel State.

To those just passing through – a good chance they’re on their way to the lone shining jewel of our tarnished area, the famed Outer Banks – they may interpret the sign to mean that they better roll-up the windows, lock the doors and do not dare make eye contact with anyone until arriving in Dare County.

Are we viewed as the next movie location for a sequel to the 1972 Hollywood hit – &uot;Deliverance?&uot; Have we become the seething underbelly of life in North Carolina? Does anybody care if we have reached that status? Is anybody out there listening?

Sure, we have those who are putting up a fair fight to turn around our misfortunes. I appreciate their efforts, but yet I cringe in my shoes every time someone makes a big deal out of a natural gas line being installed in one of our distressed counties or paste it all over the headlines when a group announces that Internet access is now available.

Gee, with those pictures etched in their minds, it’s no wonder that the rest of the state thinks that we just got indoor plumbing. They probably think that, just yesterday, we were beating our clothes on a rock down by the creek.

But no matter what the rest of our Tar Heeled brothers and sisters may think, we remain a proud band of people. For the majority of those living north and east of I-95 – yes, Raleigh, there is actual land between that corridor and the beach – we were born and raised on farms, where hard work and an honest dollar go hand in hand. There was no need for an alarm clock as our workdays in the field went from sunup to sundown. We worked hard, six days a week, and went to church on Sundays to thank God for what little we had to show for that labor.

We also learned how to become problem solvers without some fancy degree hanging on our walls. The resourcefulness learned by living in a rural area can be aptly summed up by a story I read last week about an 82-year-old Hyde County man whose roof suffered major damage during Hurricane Isabel. The damage was enough to cause a leak in his bedroom, one that soaked his bed. But instead of complaining, he fished out his rain gear, slipped it on, laid down and went to sleep.

While we can relate to hard-luck stories such as that, it still doesn’t draw much sympathy from the rest of the state. To prove my point, I spoke with two gentlemen from Southern Pines a few weeks ago that made the trip to Ahoskie to deliver goods to our Food Pantry in the wake of Hurricane Isabel. Both were amazed to see the damage here in our area. They said that the majority of the statewide media attention, in regards to the storm, was focused on the Outer Banks.

Despite the best efforts of many politicians, economic developers and civic-minded groups from our area, we continue to be the ugly stepchild of North Carolina. Sure, the state will throw us a bone every now and then – Nucor, Lowes Distribution Center and a planned new prison in Bertie County. But yet we remain as the poorest region in North Carolina.

In its Autumn 2003 issue, &uot;The Coast&uot; magazine made reference to the two coasts of North Carolina. While the lure of the dunes and the salt air were attributed to a near 350 percent rise in population in Dare County between 1970-2000, far from the pounding surf were Bertie and Hertford counties that lost four percent of their population during the same time frame.

Service jobs were up by 750 percent in Dare over that 30-year span. Meanwhile, the median home value in the county on the coast rose from $40,000 in 1970 to $140,000 by the year 2000. On the other end of that scale were Bertie and Hertford. In 1970, the median home value in Bertie was $35,000, a figure that rose to only $60,000 by 2000. Hertford County’s home values increased from $45,000 to $65,000.

What few citizens that remain steadfast in our area are overtaxed in order to pay the bills. What makes that even worse is the fact that because our area is high on the number of Medicaid eligible citizens – those who do not pay a lot of tax due to their financial condition – that places a bigger burden on those of us who live by meager means.

To pour salt into our gaping wound is that we still haven’t bounced back after Hurricane Floyd. Now we face an even longer road to recovery thanks to Hurricane Isabel. Somehow, we’ll find a way to climb out of our hole, but don’t be surprised when the ladder we’re given for assistance winds-up a few rungs too short.