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A Digital Future for Appalachia

Bass Connections panel explores new economic possibilities for Western North Carolina

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Former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue spoke about the need for more “disruptive” entrepreneurs in Western North Carolina at Tuesday’s panel. Photo by Ian Boyd

Could the next Silicon Valley be in the Appalachian Mountains? Tom Mirc, senior manager of Raleigh-based tech giant Red Hat, thinks so.

“It’s an inevitability that technology companies will be in Western North Carolina,” Mirc said. “There’s a spirit of resilience unlike any other in Appalachia. You’ve heard of the Midwestern work ethic, but the Appalachian work ethic is in a league all its own.”

Mirc and seven other panelists, including former North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue, discussed economic development in the western part of the state during an event co-sponsored by Bass Connections and the Social Science Research Institute on Tuesday night.

“Rethinking Appalachia” explored building an education-to-employment pipeline in Madison County by emphasizing digital education in public schools and incentivizing U.S. technology firms to hire in western North Carolina.

The first step in bringing jobs to Madison County, just north of Asheville, is to rethink local public education, panelists said. Deborah Hicks-Rogoff, leader of the Bass Connections Education and Rural Entrepreneurship project team, co-founded the Partnership for Appalachian Girls’ Education (PAGE) in 2010 to bring digital learning to the county’s middle school students.

“What do we do now that we have this group of bright young girls interested in technology?” Hicks-Rogoff asked. “Have we educated them for jobs that don’t exist in Madison County?”

Perdue shared Hicks-Rogoff’s concerns.

“There have always been two North Carolinas,” Perdue said. “People leave the one out west for jobs in the east. And you’re always going to have two North Carolinas unless we can bring jobs to Appalachian communities.”

A business model known as domestic insourcing could help solve the jobs dilemma, said Kevin Burkhart, co-founder of Eagle Creek Software Services, a technology company based in the Midwest. Insourcing allows tech companies to subcontract some of their work without taking it offshore, by hiring consultants and engineers living in rural areas of the U.S. where costs are lower than in major urban hubs. Domestic insourcing has helped revitalize communities across the Midwest, and could succeed in Madison County, Burkhart said.

“We can offer services at much cheaper rates than consultants in New York or Silicon Valley, so our customers love our model,” Burkhart said. “But our jobs also pay two to three times more than manufacturing jobs in the rural communities we operate in, and that keeps educated young people in their hometowns.”

However, for insourcing to succeed there, western North Carolina must overcome some obstacles, said economic development consultant Becky Anderson.  The region still lacks the infrastructure critical to supporting large enterprises, including reliable Internet connections and hotels, she said.

“Another big issue in Appalachia is the terrain,” Anderson said. “We don’t have flat land to build business parks. We also don’t own our land, as over 80 percent of the land in some counties is owned by the National Park Service.”

Despite these and other difficulties, the panelists agreed that domestic insourcing, together with new digital education programs and initiatives such as PAGE, could help ensure a brighter future for Appalachian children. Perdue encouraged more “disruptive” entrepreneurs  to help redefine economic development in North Carolina’s western counties.

“Western North Carolina has always had a lot of sheep who like to stick with the status quo,” Perdue said. “That’s how it was when I was growing up (in southern Virginia). But now we have goats there, people who are willing to disrupt this status quo, like the folks on this panel. And the only way we’re going to change these counties is with more goats -- we need more disruptors.”

“Rethinking Appalachia” is the latest installment of the Bass Connections Education and Human Development track’s Tuesday night research panels, which grew from the work of the Education and Rural Entrepreneurship in Appalachia project team. Tuesday's panel was moderated by UNC Chapel Hill professor Jesse White, former federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

For more information on future Bass Connections events, click here.