We Americans, especially Tar Heels, love the small-town simplicity evoked by native son Andy Griffith in fictional Mayberry, a still-in-rerun 1960s sitcom valentine to his hometown, Mount Airy, North Carolina. Fifty years later, we still laugh at Barney Fife — Sheriff Taylor’s inept deputy — and Otis Campbell, the local drunk who checked himself into the county jail when need be for three hots — cooked by Aunt Bee — and a cot.
Mostly, though, we celebrate and yearn for the mythical goodness of small-town America, the perceived kindness of its residents and the wisdom and common sense of its kindly widowed sheriff raising his boy, Opie, with the help of his maiden aunt. Those were the days, we imagine.
They probably were not then and are not now, either. The reality is that rural America, including rural North Carolina, is having a hard time.
Here are some cold, hard facts about small-town North Carolina, according to data from the UNC Carolina Population Center.
While North Carolina’s major urban areas are booming, population is declining in 41 percent of our municipalities.
Three out of four towns have either lost residents or have grown slower than the state average since 2010.
The largest declines have been in northeastern North Carolina, with Jacksonville, a military city, the biggest loser with a decline of more than 2,300 citizens. Our neighbors, Lumberton and Clinton, are among the top 10 losers for 2015-2016.
What is more, the people remaining in areas of declining population are older, with 23 percent of Northampton County residents now 65 and older. These are people more likely to be retired than to be full-time workers. Across the state as a whole, only 16 percent of the population is 65 or older.
We know what is causing some of these losses. Young people are leaving small towns and rural North Carolina for better career opportunities and more diverse social lives in larger cities, many of them in booming North Carolina metropolitan areas like the Triangle and Charlotte. We see this trend among people we know, many of them in our own families.
Some small towns are taking the bull by the horns and reinventing themselves through special economic development plans that do not involve large-scale manufacturing and other traditional efforts. Although Fayetteville is not a small town in a rural area, we are surrounded by many such areas whose residents often come our way. Part of the draw is Fayetteville’s reimagined and bustling downtown area, with restaurants, arts and boutique shopping.
Smaller towns are working on similar ideas— specialty food areas, regular festivals and other events and unique offerings. Google “Sylvan Heights” outside tiny Scotland Neck to learn about an impressive aviary that draws visitors from all over the state and beyond.
As fine as some of these efforts are, they are not enough. For almost a decade, the North Carolina General Assembly has been cutting funding to public schools, community colleges and our university system. Education is the backbone of economic development because our people cannot be successful and our communities cannot thrive if we are not ready to do the jobs of today, not yesterday. If young people outside North Carolina’s robust urban areas cannot get education and training, they will not be employable and productive in those communities or anywhere else.
These are not theoretical issues that affect “other people.” They shape the lives of our children and grandchildren, nieces, nephews and neighbors. They are issues to corner our legislators about not just in the halls of the legislature, but in the grocery store, in church, in restaurants — where ever you can find them.
And finally, North Carolina is one state, not two. We are not urban and rural, and if we allow ourselves to think that way, we cannot prosper. Entrepreneurship and creativity are playing huge roles in bringing small towns back to life, but local and state governments must play roles as well through public policies aimed at floating all boats.
Our beloved Mayberry harkens to a time when most people, including North Carolinians, lived in towns much like that imaginary place. As North Carolina evolves, our Mayberrys are both part of our collective past and part of our collective future.