More than three decades ago, when the the North Carolina Rural Center was founded, 85 counties in the state were considered rural. After the last census, it is down to 78.
The nonprofit group looks at population of a county to determine its status as urban, suburban or rural. After the last census, Johnston and Onslow counties gained a suburban designation as both counties saw significant growth.
Metro areas are seeing the most growth and the urban sprawl is expanding far beyond city limits, data shows.
But the growth in some places, means population loss in others. More than half of the state’s counties lost people between the 2010 and 2020 census surveys. All of them are rural.
Where Patrick Woodie grew up is one of them.
“Piney Creek in Alleghany County is my center of the universe,” said Woodie, the executive director and president of NC Rural Center. “And it’s the place where I feel most at home.”
Woodie is a Triangle resident now. He first moved away from Piney Creek to attend Wake Forest University. Then, he went back after receiving his law degree to work in economic development.
“I know what it’s like to grow up in an area where you don’t have everything you want,” Woodie said.
Woodie’s face filled with delight as he talked about the community, which he returns to often to visit his mother. He reminisced about his grade school principal, saying she was a role model.
In Woodie’s role now, he works with all of the state’s rural counties. He says his upbringing helps him relate to all people and he can help them find their strengths – a skill useful to have as the rural center is a nonprofit organization focused on economic development.
Woodie considers North Carolina to be a primarily rural state still. The data is uncertain though. About one-third of residents live in areas designated by the census as rural but more than 90% of the state’s land is rural.
“I think [North Carolina] is a good model for the changing face of the southeast and the nation in general,” said Bob Coats, the state’s census liaison. “These very rural communities are now changing.”
Coats was born and raised in Johnston County and points to his own hometown as an example of this.
Rural counties are losing residents right now as urban areas see booming population growth but not space. Between the two most recent dicennial census surveys, the urban area footprint in the state decreased by 86.17 square miles, but the urban area population increased by more than 662,000.
“The growth of urban areas is taking a bigger and bigger chunk of our population,” Coats said.
Certain funding requires areas to have an urban or rural designation. That’s on top of general federal funding in general. Coats’ office estimates each person counted by the census brings in about $2,000 for a community. Rural communities seeing a decline in population means they’re receiving less money.
Woodie says keeping people there is important. He says his organization has been working with counties so they can build programs in community colleges, which meet the needs of the areas they’re in. He also says that as we see the state’s economy grow, these rural counties need to look at their assets and have to reimagine their identities.
“Rural should not measure success by trying to be like urban places,” Woodie said. “We need to look at that very differently.”
The census will release its next batch of data in May. This data provides a detailed look at household demographics, which will help areas have a better idea of people moving away or to a community. The data is important for funding and policy decisions.