SPRUCE PINE — N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore visited the tri-county area to speak to local leaders about economic challenges facing their counties on Nov. 21.
Representatives from Avery, Mitchell, McDowell and Yancey counties attended the brief summit at the Spruce Pine Fire Department.
Avery’s representatives included County Manager Phillip Barrier, Commissioners Dennis Aldridge and Woodie Young, and Economic Development Committee Chair Ken Walters.
Each county was given about 10 minutes to outline the main economic challenges they face.
Barrier took the reins for Avery County’s presentation and outlined two recurring issues in the county: Broadband access and the county tier system.
Broadband infrastructure in Avery County is limited. In the past Barrier has pointed to issues selling property due to a lack of access to reliable and affordable internet service. Barrier also pointed out that while every student in Avery County Schools goes home with a device to use with their studies, many students do not have internet access to use the devices at home.
The other issue facing the county is the tier system used to rank the distress of North Carolina counties. Counties are ranked from most distressed at Tier 1 to least distressed at Tier 3. Avery County is a Tier 2 county, while some surrounding small counties such as Mitchell and Yancey are Tier 1 counties. Watauga County falls in Tier 3.
Tier 1 counties typically have more grant and assistance opportunities in the state than other tiers. Barrier pointed out, while the high value of property in Avery’s gated communities makes the county appear relatively well off on paper, it does not account for the disparity between high- and low-income residents.
The issue has been pointed out repeatedly at meetings of the county commissioners. Last year the county was passed over for potentially millions of dollars in matching funds for school capital projects. The county already had begun preliminary work and had a full plan for the ongoing high school construction project.
Tier 1 counties had more funding available for less match than Tier 2, and some surrounding Tier 1 counties received $15 million in matching funds while Avery received no funding. The high school project, which has been repeatedly billed as necessary to meet state safety standards and replace part of the school in disrepair, has a total cost of about $20 million, which is about two-thirds of the county’s annual budget for a single project.
Moore took notes, with members of the panel occasionally asking questions of the county representatives and some small discussion.
Moore said these kind of roundtables are not very common, but he tries to travel to rural areas of the state both in the far eastern areas of the state and the mountains.
“We have some pretty unique challenges,” Moore said. “We’re making sure that community leaders know that we want to be a resource at the General Assembly, that we want to make sure that we’re getting the tax dollars that people here pay back into the community, and really find out what the needs of the community are and try to help.”
Moore said he thought the roundtable was productive. Some of the issues he pointed to which was brought up at the meeting was road construction, healthcare access and how the opioid crisis affects the workforce.
“Anybody that drives knows the challenges of [Hwy.] 226, or 221 for that matter,” Moore said. “The issues are the same all around the state, particularly in rural communities.”
Moore spent the rest of the day attending political events, adding this was the one official event he attended that day.