Push for progress: NC organization working to keep top talent in small towns as more choose bigger cities

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GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) — There’s a crisis in towns and cities across North Carolina. Areas are losing large portions of their educated populations to large metro areas.

Two-thirds of graduates in North Carolina cluster in Raleigh-Durham and the Charlotte metro area. The migration to larger cities leaves people living in towns without a workforce to make the town better, and young public servants to help solve problems.

“Local government leadership, particularly in rural, small, economically-distressed areas is rapidly aging,” said Dylan Russell, executive director of Lead for North Carolina. “It often lacks representation from its diverse population and is struggling to attract the next generation of talent.”

That’s where Lead for North Carolina steps in. With 70% of local government leaders at retirement age, the UNC School of Government started the post-graduate program. It’s been up and running for three years now.

The program has placed 28 fellows across the state, and it’s about to place 25 more in August. It places extra manpower in places like Pollocksville, a small town in Jones County that has been that way for many years.

“Some days I’m working on grants, and writing letters to a representative and the next day I might be hanging flags on Main Street or I might be down in a sewer trying to release a blockage,” said Nate Polo, a fellow in the Town of Pollocksville.

Polo is from the New Bern area. He chose to be a part of LFNC because he wanted to help an area near to his heart recover from bad hurricanes, and help them plan for the next one.

“If we want to be resilient against natural disasters or social disasters, we have to spend some time ahead of time planning,” said Polo.

Fellows across the state are helping towns and cities bring in over $10 million in grant funding.

“To see projects that have been sitting on the shelf for a long time, or projects that weren’t necessarily shovel ready, to get them to shovel readiness, it just shows the importance of this program,” said Berekia Divanga, a fellow in the City of Washington.

Divanga secured a $3 million grant for the city, among others.

“When you start small, you can have a bigger impact,” said Divanga.

Program leaders believe our state is on the edge of a big manpower problem if things don’t change, and more young people continue to move away.

“Our local governments are the vanguard of problem solving,” said Russell. “From parks and recreation, police and fire departments, even addressing global climate change, local governments have become more adept at providing this vast array of services that have a direct impact on our daily lives.”

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