In 1986, the North Carolina Commission on Jobs and Economic Growth undertook a yearlong study to identify the major economic challenges facing the state. Chief among its findings was the growing disparity between rural and urban North Carolina. While the cities were experiencing an economic boom that was bringing high-paying jobs and a range of social and cultural amenities, most rural areas found themselves in economic stagnation or even decline.
In short, the future of nearly half the state's population -- more than 3 million people living in 85 counties -- was growing dimmer. Especially at risk were the half million rural North Carolinians who were living at the poverty level and the thousands more struggling just to remain at the economic edge.
In response to these conditions, the commission recommended the creation of an aggressive nonprofit organization to develop and carry out an action agenda for state rural economic development. The organization was to be charged with carrying out research, demonstration projects, training and information dissemination, and it was to work hand-in-hand with public and private organizations across the state involved in rural economic development.
Led by the lieutenant governor, a broad-based committee of state leaders -- representing business, government, the foundation community, public universities and others -- began taking steps to create the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center. The committee secured the leadership of William C. Friday, former president of the University of North Carolina, as the chairman of the center's board of directors, and start-up funds from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco.
In January 1987, the Rural Center was established as the first organization in the country devoted exclusively to state rural advancement. In July, it received its first appropriation from the North Carolina General Assembly. In an editorial called "The Keys to N.C. Prosperity," The Charlotte Observer endorsed creation of the center and described why it was critical to all people of the state:
North Carolina has only one economy. Strong cities need strong towns, and vice versa. Rural areas provide markets for urban goods and services as well as many urban workers and leaders.... If rural and urban areas don't work together, they might not work at all.