Broadband, entrepreneurs, faith: What would it take for rural NC to regain population?

By Sarah Nagem

A running joke in Rowland is that the town’s population has stood at 1,038 for as long as anyone can remember. 

But like many small towns in southeastern North Carolina, Rowland has shrunk in the last decade. Its current population, according to newly released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, is 885. 

David Townsend, who grew up in Rowland but moved away for college and his career, returned and took a job as the town clerk five years ago. He’s “stubborn,” he says, and he wants to help his hometown – a speck on the map in Robeson County – return to the days of the 1960s and ’70s when it was hard to find a parking space along the main drag. 

“There’s no clothing store, there’s no jewelry store, there’s no bakery, because all the people who would have eaten there or used those things have gone away,” said Townsend, 63. 

As he sees it, Rowland provides a snapshot of what is happening across the state and the nation: Cities are growing, while rural areas are getting smaller.  

North Carolina grew by 9.5% in the last 10 years, according to 2020 Census data. But the growth mostly occurred in metro areas, including Charlotte, Raleigh and Wilmington, where jobs are more plentiful. 

Meanwhile, Robeson County lost 13% of its population, or 17,638 people – the largest numeric decline of the state’s 100 counties, according to Carolina Demography

Many people question the accuracy of the Census counts, which were taken during the coronavirus pandemic. Some residents were hesitant to open their doors to strangers, and others didn’t have internet access to complete the Census form online. 

But there’s little doubt that much of southeastern North Carolina saw a drop in population. So what does that mean for the region, particularly Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties? And what would it take to regain residents? 

Changing demographics

The population of Black, white and Native American residents dropped in all four counties between 2010 and 2020.

In Robeson and Scotland counties, the biggest percentage drop in population was among white people – 19.4% and 14.2%, respectively. 

In Bladen and Columbus counties, the percentage of the Black population declined the most – 22.1% and 17.5%, respectively. 

Native Americans are still by far the majority in Robeson, but their population dropped by 14.4%. 

Meanwhile, the Hispanic population increased in all four counties except Columbus, which saw a drop of 1.8%.

The number of people who identified as two or more races on the Census increased significantly in all four counties. The number is 1,556 in Scotland County, up from 746 a decade ago. 

An increasingly diverse population could lead to meaningful changes “for communities that may not have had a stronger voice when it comes to policy-making,” said Brandy Bynum Dawson, senior director of advocacy and policy at the NC Rural Center. 

“For us, we see it as an opportunity,” she said of the center. “Granted, there will be some challenge with helping folks understand and appreciate that growing diversity across the state.” 

Funding for schools

A drop in population can mean less tax revenue for things like roads and amenities, less grant funding from the federal government and less money from the state for schools. 

North Carolina allocates money to schools based on student population. 

Robeson County’s population of people under age 18 dropped by 7,852 between 2010 and 2020, Census data shows. The 22% decline is enough to fill 341 classrooms of roughly 23 students each.  

Other nearby counties also had significant declines in that age group. Bladen and Columbus counties both saw a drop of nearly 24%, and Scotland County saw a drop of 19.2%. 

Meanwhile, the statewide under-18 population stayed roughly the same. 

Shaniya Blair, 8, uses a STEM building set at Partners in Ministry in Scotland County on July 12. Scotland County saw its under-18 population drop by about 19% between 2010 and 2020.
Photo by Sarah Nagem

Terry Mann, mayor of Whiteville in Columbus County, said he was particularly concerned about the impact on local schools, especially since some students did not have internet access while campuses were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The rural areas, the schools are suffering anyway,” he said. “It’s one big revolving wheel.” 

After high school, Mann said, many young people move away and don’t return right away. 

“They get a taste of college life,” he said. “For a single person, a rural area … is not what they want initially.” 

Entrepreneurship and leadership

Such population losses among young people could have future impacts on the economy, the housing market and local governing boards, said Todd Brantley, vice president of public affairs for the NC Rural Center.

Who will be around in the coming years to fill jobs, buy homes and serve as elected leaders?

“You’re losing the potential for those people to stay and either learn a trade or to become a small business owner in their local community,” Brantley said. 

Seventh-grader Jamar Cobb sits in a classroom at the Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy in Elizabethtown on May 3.

The future of rural North Carolina depends in part on people willing to become entrepreneurs, he said. 

From 2019 to 2020, Robeson County saw a 45% increase in new-business applications – a positive sign for the future, according to Brantley.

“Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention,” he said. “So maybe there are some people who are trying to figure out how to do something on their own in light of this pandemic and economic downturn.” 

That might be especially true as agriculture continues to change. 

Long gone are the days when a 100-acre farm could support a family of five, Townsend said. Now farmers need thousands of acres to make a living, and farming equipment is expensive. 

“The small farms can’t be supporting a small town anymore,” he said. “That’s the sad part, the challenge.”

Need for broadband

The pandemic has highlighted the need for reliable and affordable broadband internet access in rural areas, Brantley said. Shrinking populations in rural communities are more proof. 

“And it’s not just to watch Netflix, right? It’s telemedicine and telehealth. It’s jobs. It’s education,” he said. 

With broadband, rural communities could more easily attract people who work remotely or attend online school. It’s also important for small businesses who want to sell their products online, Bynum Dawson said. 

“It’s no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity for communities and people to thrive,” she said. 

N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper announced in December a nearly $30 million project to connect thousands of households and hundreds of businesses to high-speed internet in several rural counties, including Bladen, Columbus and Robeson. 

Overcoming obstacles

Sometimes people have misconceptions about rural areas, posing another obstacle for growth, said Mann, the Whiteville mayor. 

“It’s just the connotation that it gives you the non-progressive image,” he said. “Outside people looking at statistics, they say, ‘They’re not growing, something’s not right.’” 

Communities must embrace residents and opportunities, according to Brantley. 

“How do we welcome those people in a way that they want to stay and make these places their home, start small businesses, raise families, put down roots? And how do we as a welcoming community get them more involved in the life of that community?” 

Marketing is key, Bynum Dawson said. Rural areas should celebrate nature and amenities such as hiking trails. 

“People come from all around the world to rural communities to take advantage of opportunities, and people who live there just haven’t,” she said. “So how do we reinvent that to encourage people to take advantage of that natural beauty and those opportunities?”

The leaves of low-hanging tree in the early-morning light along the Lumbee River.

Signs of change?

There are some signs of change. Southeastern North Carolina has seen a bit of a housing boom during the pandemic, although not as much as urban areas. 

Homes are selling quickly in Columbus County, Mann said, and he expects to see more development in the eastern and southern parts of the county, closer to the beaches. 

“I don’t know if we’re getting growth or not, but somebody’s buying all these houses,” he said. 

In Rowland, four homes have been sold in the town in the last year, Townsend said. The buyers were from South Carolina, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and upstate New York. 

“They moved because they couldn’t stand the cold,” he said of the New York family. 

But Townsend said his town needs help. He wants to see a small manufacturing company move in, and also some fast-food restaurants to serve travelers heading to the beach. 

“Now,” he said, “we’ve got to work on our little town to get the infrastructure back in place.” 

This certainly isn’t the end for rural for North Carolina, Brantley said.

“We can talk about declining populations, but there’s still a lot of people there who love those places, and it’s their home and it’s where their families live and it’s where relatives are buried,” he said. “It’s where their faith communities are.

“This is not the first rodeo for a lot of these rural places. They’re always facing something, it seems like. And they always persist and they always survive and they always find a way to adapt.” 

David Townsend, town clerk for Rowland in Robeson County, talks about an abandoned building downtown.
Photo by Sarah Nagem