Rockingham County, NC Finding opportunities amidst a changing economy and changing demographics

Strategic Assessment | by Natalie Blake

Rockingham County’s rich history, in many ways, reflects the broader history of our state. It is the home of North Carolina’s first public school; its economy was built on tobacco and industry; and its valuable natural assets have attracted both people and businesses. Today, like much of our state, the community is grappling with change. Since the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation could not visit all 100 counties during our yearlong strategic assessment process, the Foundation decided to visit Rockingham County in part because we hoped to learn more about how rural communities are adapting to a changing economy and an aging population. ZSR’s visit to Rockingham County revealed that a changing economy and changing community demographics have inspired community leaders to see both challenges and opportunity.

The County’s changing economy is characterized by the loss of relatively high-paying manufacturing jobs, which means there are fewer middle class positions available to residents who do not hold post-secondary degrees. Several leaders noted that there are ample job opportunities in the area; however, prospective employers cite a gap when it comes to what they term basic and “soft skills” such as showing up to work on time or collaborating well with others. Despite challenges like these, we heard much optimism for the future. With training and support, the skills gap can be addressed, leaders are working to develop and support more small businesses, and communities look to neighboring communities, networks and partners for future economic prospects. For example, the town of Eden, situated in the northern part of the county, looks largely to Virginia for its future prospects. Meanwhile the City of Reidsville, situated about 10 miles south, looks to Greensboro.

The demographics of the community are also shifting relatively rapidly as the senior population grows. During a 20 year timespan from 2010 to 2030, it is estimated that the population of Rockingham County residents who are aged 65 to 74 will increase by 41 percent. During that same timeframe, people aged 75 to 84 will increase by 55 percent, and people over the age of 85 will increase by 29 percent. In response to this growth in the aging community, Reidsville is now home to a brand new senior center that is working creatively to serve the needs of seniors and their families. In addition, the County has seen that developing strategies to support seniors can have a broader benefit to the whole community. For example, when community leaders sought to address senior citizens’ need to have access to transportation, a plan was developed that provided the entire community with access to affordable bus routes.

In Rockingham County, ZSR had the honor of meeting thoughtful, dedicated people, who are passionate about helping their community find opportunity in the midst of challenges. We also saw the steadfast determination that people in the County have for improving conditions for future generations.

We are so grateful to Rockingham County for welcoming us and sharing valuable insights with us. While we are still trying to determine how all of the information we are gleaning will inform our new strategic vision that we are planning to release in May 2017, we look forward to continuing the conversations and cultivating the relationships that have we developed as we all work together to make North Carolina a thriving place to live and work.

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