In October, a team of Trustees and staff visited Jackson County and the Qualla Boundary as part of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation’s yearlong strategic assessment process and its Mo Wants to Know listening and learning tour. As someone who grew up in North Carolina’s mountains, learning more about the opportunities and challenges facing my hometown, especially in the height of leaf season, was a work assignment I was delighted to take on.
Situated about an hour southwest of Asheville, Jackson County is the sixth western-most county in North Carolina. It is comprised of Sylva – the county seat, and my family’s home of several generations – Cullowhee and Western Carolina University, as well as several smaller communities. Its natural beauty and varied assets draw tourists each season, and it is a well-known spot for outdoor recreation, especially fly fishing. The Qualla Boundary, the sovereign nation of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, encompasses parts of five Western North Carolina counties, including a swath of northern Jackson County. The Qualla Boundary is known for its cultural preservation efforts, as is evident through the work of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, among several other cultural institutions. It is also commonly known for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, which serves as an economic hub for the region.
As with each of the communities the Foundation has visited throughout our listening and learning tour, Jackson County and the Qualla Boundary were selected because they are representative of broader trends and demographics in our state. While each of North Carolina’s communities are unique, this visit expanded our understanding of prevalent issues in our state’s rural communities, especially Western NC. One key takeaway for me was how a lack of access in rural areas can often unintentionally hinder progress in a community. An example of this is lack of access to advanced technologies and communications services.
As Americans, our culture is near-ubiquitously digitized. For many of us, access to technologies that are used for educational attainment, healthcare and many aspects of everyday functions are commonly taken for granted. However, lack of access to advanced technologies, such as broadband internet, has broad implications on the livelihoods of Americans in rural regions. During our visit, several leaders in Jackson County remarked on the challenges related to poor connectivity in the county and the region more broadly. Without reliable, high speed technologies, communities face challenges of recruiting and retaining young, entrepreneurial talent, despite the region’s varied attributes. Faster, more reliable broadband and access to other technological services, that are commonplace in North Carolina’s urban regions, could have far reaching implications for business and economic development, quality of life measures, public health and safety, and access to information and care.
This challenge is not without precedent – historically, technological advancements tend to be mainstream in urban areas while slowly trickling to our state’s more rural areas. However, these issues of access can be cyclical in nature and have the ability to persistently hold communities back. While the challenges faced by rural communities are multifaceted and have longstanding historical roots, there are also substantial opportunities in our state to interrupt structural inequities and redirect development to be more inclusive. As ZSR’s strategic assessment progresses, the Foundation is working to better understand how these issues – such as access – are impacting communities across North Carolina within the context of a rapidly evolving state.