Rural North Carolina could benefit most from infrastructure plan. But leaders are wary

By Sarah Nagem

The need for broadband internet service in Bladen County became crystal clear when schools switched to remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The school district partnered with a communications company to create Wi-Fi hotspots in the parking lots on some school campuses. That way, students could sit in cars and do their work. 

“It’s pretty serious in the rural parts of our county,” said Charles Peterson, chairman of the Bladen County Board of Commissioners. 

The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, which won bipartisan support in Congress and was signed into law this week by President Joe Biden, could provide millions of dollars to expand broadband throughout Bladen County and the rest of rural North Carolina. 

That would be great, Peterson said, but he’s no fan of America spending so much money.

“It’s the wrong thing to do,” said Peterson, who left the Democratic party about five years ago and registered as a Republican. “You can’t put the country at risk to do things like that.” 

Peterson isn’t alone in his skepticism, and his concerns highlight a political truth: Some of the areas that need the most help – including rural, conservative N.C. counties – scoff the loudest at massive federal spending programs.

Republicans David Rouzer and Dan Bishop, who represent much of southeastern North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives, both voted against the bill that could bring almost $9 billion in federal money to the state. 

In a statement earlier this month, Bishop said the “socialist” plan was a harbinger for the New Green Deal, a sweeping resolution by New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez aimed at fighting climate change. 

The infrastructure package “will make inflation far worse than we’re seeing today,” Bishop said. “Americans are tired of Democrats’ socialist agenda.” 

Republicans who voted in favor of the bill “ought to be voted out of office,” Peterson said. 

Peterson, 68, served on the local school board for 12 years and has been a county commissioner for more than 20 years. He said he switched to the Republican party “because I felt like the Democrat party left me. I don’t have the same lifestyle and thoughts of the Democratic party.” 

Some other Bladen County commissioners have also switched to the GOP in recent years, Peterson said, adding “there is a southern push to get away from the Democrats.” 

Peterson said he disagreed with Biden’s COVID vaccine mandate, and he doesn’t think the government should give things away for free. 

He said he learned the value of hard work as a kid, and he is now retired from his job as a supervisor at a DuPont chemical plant. More people need to get back to work, he said. 

“It’s nothing against anyone personally,” Peterson said. “I grew up working, and I still work, and I just don’t like the direction the country is going in.” 

Whit Gibson, a conservative Democrat and chairman of the Scotland County Board of Commissioners, said he was pleased that Biden’s original $2 trillion infrastructure plan was pared down. Still, he said, “It’s a lot of money, and I hope it will be used wisely.” 

Like Bladen, Scotland County needs broadband service, Gibson said. 

Peterson said he would be more in favor of the government expanding high-speed internet through a targeted bill that earmarks money for just that. Census data released this summer showed that 70.2% of Bladen County households have a broadband internet subscription, compared to 82.7% nationwide, as reported by the Bladen Journal. 

“I have no problem helping and money going to broadband,” he said. “I have a problem with money going to where it’s not supposed to go.” 

Gibson said there are plenty of projects in Scotland County that could use funding. Some of the county’s bridges were repaired after Hurricane Florence in 2018, he said, but there are others that need attention. 

Any upgrades to the Port of Wilmington would benefit Scotland and the rest of the region, Gibson said. Scotland County, which has not seen the drastic drop in population that some other nearby counties have experienced, wants to lure more businesses that need access to shipping sites. 

The North Carolina State Ports Authority already has plans to spend $250 million on capital improvements at the Port of Wilmington. 

The Laurinburg-Maxton Airport, which is set to get $8 million from the state for upgrades, could also benefit from the federal plan, Gibson said. 

Gibson, who said his politics now align more with the Republican party, said it’s a good thing the infrastructure plan made it through with support from both sides of the aisle. 

“I’m glad that it was passed with more bipartisan participation,” he said. “I think there was a danger the Democrats would ram it through. I think we’ve got to get away from such partisanship.” 

‘Desperate need’

Ricky Bullard, chairman of the Columbus County Board of Commissioners, said he switched to the GOP about five years ago as local politics began to change. 

“When I was first elected to the school board in 1994, if you weren’t a Democrat you were not going to get elected,” he said. 

His father was a Democrat, Bullard said, but times were different. 

“Back then, the Democratic party represented the good-working, hard-working poor man,” he said. “And it’s not that way anymore.” 

Politics aside, Bullard said Columbus County stands to benefit from the infrastructure plan. The county needs more broadband service and more water and sewer lines, he said. 

There are planned subdivisions in the southern part of the county that should be connected to water and sewer lines, he said. But it’s not feasible to run lines to rural areas, according to Bullard, so residents will have to use wells and septic tanks. 

There has been progress in bringing better internet service to the county, Bullard said, although more help is needed. ATMC, a nonprofit cooperative, is expanding broadband through a $15.8 million project. Half of the money comes from the ReConnect BroadBand program, part of the federal Department of Agriculture. 

“We’re in desperate need of a lot of things here in Columbus County,” he said, “but thankfully we’re getting some of it done.” 

Crews with ATMC work to bring broadband internet service to Columbus County.
Photo courtesy of ATMC