A new report showing a decline in the number of businesses with less than 10 employees in rural North Carolina counties like Wilkes is another example of the divide between have and have-not areas of the state.

The report, “Small Business Dynamism in North Carolina,” was released by the NC Rural Center and its subsidiary, Thread Capital, just in time for Small Business Week (May 5-11). The NC Rural Center works to bring about economic strategies that improve quality of life in Wilkes and the state’s other 79 rural counties and Thread Capital focuses on building a better environment for entrepreneurship.

The new report shows a 7% decline in the number of businesses with fewer than 10 employees in the 80 rural counties as a whole, and a 9% increase in the 20 “urban/regional city-suburban” counties. (The Rural Center defines a rural county as having average population densities of 250 people per square mile or less.)

The report is troubling because of the vital role of small businesses in the economic well-being and quality of life in rural communities and small towns, perhaps even more so than in urban centers.

Wilkes County is listed with an 11% decline in businesses with fewer than 10 employees, from 970 in 2005 to 861 in 2015. Businesses this size decreased by 17% in Alleghany, 12% in Caldwell, 10% in Yadkin, 8% in Ashe, 7% in Surry, 5% in Watauga and 3% in Alexander in the same period.

Iredell County had 13% more businesses with fewer than 10 employees in 2015 than in 2005, one of the largest increases in the state. Most of the northern half of Iredell is rural, but the county isn’t classified with the 80 rural counties due to recenty rapid growth in the southern half.

The new report shows 165 bank branches closed in the 80 rural counties and 32 closed in the other counties between 2010 and 2015, plus loans to businesses with less than $1 million in revenue fell by a 61% drop in the rural counties. Wilkes went from 20 bank branches in 2005 to 18 in 2015. Two full service bank branches closed in Wilkes since then, but one also opened.

Interestingly, the report showed that loans to businesses with less than $1 million in annual revenue in Wilkes fell from $30.9 million in 2005 to $22.4 million in 2010, but then increased to $31.7 million in 2015.

Loans to the same size businesses in neighboring Surry, just a little larger than Wilkes in population and comparable in other ways, dropped by 66% in this period, from $46.7 million to $15.8 million. They decreased by 48% in Caldwell, from $32.9 million to $17 million.

Lender support can only go so far in sustaining small businesses.

It makes a difference if town government officials place a high priority on small business needs in decisions impacting infrastructure, regulations, fees, economic development and other topics. Local government can be impactful in ways as simple as having good directional signage.

Small business centers, chambers of commerce and other entities that provide small business representatives with information on everything from recordkeeping to online sales opportunities are important.

Organizations that bring small business representatives together to address issues, promote sales and organize events can make a difference.

In addition to the jobs they create and taxes they pay, small businesses provide diversity and convenience in local shopping and keep people from having to drive out of town for what they need.

Small businesses make communities more attractive to visitors, potential new residents and businesses that might relocate there. A downtown full of vacant storefronts is bad news for economic development.

A community’s small businesses are among the biggest supporters of school fundraisers and other local nonprofit endeavors and organizations. Owners and other representatives of local small businesses serve in various leadership roles.

Rural county residents would do well to be mindful of the importance of supporting small businesses in communities where they live as often as possible in their shopping decisions.

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