November 6, 2000 By Steve Towns
"Weve had an economy thats based on lower-wage and lower-skilled labor in rural areas," said Billy Ray Hall, head of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center. When you look at the New Economy, with global competition and the restructuring thats going on in manufacturing, agriculture and services, the rural areas of North Carolina are not blessed with the human capital or the infrastructure to participate."
Earlier this year, Hunt received recommendations from the states Rural Prosperity Task Force, a 25-member group appointed in 1999 to find ways of bringing rural communities up to par with economically successful urban areas. In August, the governor signed legislation creating the North Carolina Rural Internet Access Authority, an organization within the Department of Commerce charged with carrying out many of the task force recommendations.
Among the Access Authoritys first priorities is managing an agreement between state officials and North Carolinas largest telecommunications providers that will bring dial-up Internet connections to rural communities within one year and affordable high-speed connections to those areas within three years. The authority also will open two model
telework centers in depressed areas over the next two years and promote computer ownership and Internet access subscriptions throughout the state.
In a fortunate turn of events, the organization will have a pot of $30 million -- a windfall generated by the Micro-Electronic Center of North Carolina, one of the states early forays into computer technology -- to invest in these and other rural economic development projects.
"There was some degree of luck involved. No one knew when we finished the task force report that we were going to get $30 million," said Tom Runkle, chief planning officer of ITS. "But were obviously ready to spend it much better than we would have been otherwise. You wouldnt believe the person-hours we put into the Rural Prosperity Task Force."
In fact, careful planning underlies much of North Carolinas current success. Although the state appears to be spinning out technology initiatives at a break-neck pace, the whirlwind of activity stems from a deliberate, farsighted approach to e-commerce and e-government, said
Clinton, executive director of the southern Growth Policies Board, a group dedicated to fostering economic development in the South.
"States that win in building economies understand that this is a long-term affair," said Clinton. "Victories that have been scored in the states we talk about -- certainly in North Carolina -- are a product of constant attention to the future."
For instance, North Carolinas statewide approach to IT initiatives traces back to the mid-1990s with the creation of the Information Resources Management Council (IRMC), a 21-member group comprising major agency secretaries, elected officials, education leaders and state and local government representatives. The organizations monthly meetings promote technology sharing among state agencies, expose agency heads to technical issues and reinforce the notion that IT must be viewed from a statewide perspective, according to Secretary of State Marshall, who chairs the IRMCs e-commerce workgroup.
"I think the best benefit of IRMC is that agency heads have the position there, and we try to make sure that they attend, rather than sending designees," Marshall said. "Weve got very few other bodies to hammer out these kinds of decisions. They drill down into some exacting kinds of things, and you generally dont have your agency heads doing that kind of stuff."
Similarly, state leaders have spent several years refining North Carolinas technical architecture, which spells out the states standards for implementing new technology and connecting modern equipment to legacy systems.
The focus on long-term planning continued this year with the release of Vision 2030, a document prepared by the North Carolina Board of Science and Technology, which urges leaders to prepare for the 21st -century economy by
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