Small business needs in North Carolina and efforts of the N.C. Rural Center to address them were discussed in a Wilkes Chamber of Commerce event June 2 at the Yadkin Valley Marketplace in North Wilkesboro.
“Small and very small businesses is the big business of North Carolina,” said Rural Center Director Patrick Woodie.
Woodie said 95% of businesses in North Carolina have fewer than 50 employees and 75% of all businesses in the state’s 80 rural counties have fewer than 10 employees.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina Flagler School of business estimated that the state lost about 19% of its businesses with fewer than 50 employees between January and September 2020, he added.
Woodie said the Rural Center established a small business policy task force last year consisting of small business owners from across the state.
The task force finished its work and presented a 20-point plan in February. Progress on many of these has been made in the current legislative session, said Woodie, an Alleghany County native.
Miles Kirksey, Rural Center advocacy engagement coordinator, described the series of focus group sessions held statewide to come up with the 20 points.
Kirksey said needs identified through these sessions include increased funding for small business centers at community colleges, small business grant programs and small business mentoring programs.
The effort also determined more funds are needed to help establish community financial institutions due to the large number of branch bank closures in rural areas in recent years.
Kirksey said these closures made it harder for small businesses to have relationships with bankers and such relationships were especially important during the pandemic, including for securing PPP loans.
Kirksey and Woodie invited attendees to join the Rural Center’s Small Business Coalition, tied to the small business policy task force. Woodie said more members will increase the 20-point plan’s clout with the legislature. It now has 250 members.
When Kirksey opened the floor for comments from attendees, County Commissioner Keith Elmore voiced concern about the push to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Elmore said the car wash he managed employed many high school students and that it didn’t make sense to pay them $15 an hour. He said the car wash recently was sold and the new owner is installing automated equipment to replace many of the employees.
Woodie said the pandemic accelerated the usage of technology in place of human labor in many workplaces.
He said a positive result of the pandemic was that it made more people want to live in rural and small town areas. Woodie said rural communities with extensive broadband infrastructure and good healthcare systems are better positioned to take advantage of this.
Another attendee brought up the lack of housing for people hired by companies in Wilkes. He asked Woodie how this could be addressed.
Woodie said there appears to be strong bi-partisan support for increasing funding for housing finance agency programs by as much as 25%, using federal COVID recovery funds awarded to the state. He said this would be housing for people at various income levels.
Woodie said the two best resources for increasing housing options in North Carolina are the N.C. Housing Finance Agency and the N.C. Housing Coalition. Neither is a state government entity.
North Wilkesboro Commissioner Michael Parsons said leadership and guidance is needed to help establish uniform rules impacting housing in Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro “so there is a symbiotic playing field.” Parsons this would help increase housing options.
Woodie encouraged having regular meetings of elected officials of the two towns. “The ability to work together directly relates to better outcomes” in communities.
Wilkesboro Mayor Mike Inscore said mayors and town managers of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro regularly met for several years but this diminished over time and ended with the pandemic.
Another person said companies in Wilkes wanting to hire are having a hard time finding employees. Woodie noted new state legislation offering people $1,500 bonuses for becoming employed.
When a woman said a central place for resources available for entrepreneurs is needed, the establishment of Startup Wilkes (startupwilkes.com) was cited by Laurie Brintle-Jarvis, director of the Small Business Center at Wilkes Community College.
Brintle-Jarvis said it was established just before the pandemic began with a goal of being a clearinghouse of information for entrepreneurs.
The N.C. Rural Center works to identify and bring attention to issues facing the 80 rural counties in North Carolina. Woodie said its 2021 Advocacy Priorities represent the culmination of four years of research and listening to people in rural counties.
He said one of the concerns mentioned most often by small business owners was the lack of affordable health insurance.
Woodie said the three ways communities can create new jobs are recruiting companies from outside the community, investing in existing companies and help them grow and aiding new companies by helping them get a foothold.
He said North Carolina should and has done a good job recruiting companies, but the state needs to more effectively support existing small businesses.
Woodie said federal funds available to help the nation recover from the COVID-19 pandemic created a unique opportunity “to really advance our communities in ways we have only dreamed of…. It remains to be seen if we will really be able to capitalize on that.”
The Rural Center was involved in providing small business rapid recovery loans during the pandemic. The center is funded with grants, primarily from the Golden LEAF Foundation, and program service revenue.