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Economic Recovery From COVID: Legislative Testimony In Brief

Since March of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to radically remake the economic landscape of North Carolina and beyond. While local governments work to rebuild, rework, and retool existing systems and services to meet this new environment, state leaders in North Carolina are seeking to learn from the lessons of the pandemic as they chart a course for the future.



On November 3rd, 2021, Anita Brown-Graham, director of the ncIMPACT Initiative at the UNC School of Government, gave testimony to the North Carolina General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Governmental Operations Subcommittee on the Use and Distribution of Federal COVID Funding. This was the Subcommittee’s first meeting since being formed in October 2021 to oversee the use of federal COVID relief funds by state agencies and local governments, and to track patterns and best practices in recovery strategies meant to bolster public COVID recovery efforts. She shared insights from ncIMPACT’s early Keys to Economic Recovery from COVID-19 research, funded by the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, along with preliminary data collected as part of the Carolina Across 100 Initiative, coordinated by Professor Brown-Graham on behalf of UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and the Carolina Engagement Council (CEC), and insights garnered by the UNC School of Government’s basic course on the American Rescue Plan Act.

 

Discovering Keys to Economic Recovery: Indicators of Resilience

 As Brown-Graham said in her opening remarks, “Local governments have been on the frontlines of the economic impacts of COVID-19.” The ncIMPACT Initiative partnered with NCGrowth at the UNC Kenan Institute for Private Enterprise to research the Keys to any community’s success in navigating the challenges presented during the pandemic. Launched in Spring of 2020 with a survey of local governments and building on existing data, this research uncovered three primary areas of focus that seem to lead to successful outcomes: 1) the ability to innovate, 2) the capacity to collaborate, and 3) the effective use of data for decision-making. The work for the program was funded by the North Carolina Policy Collaboratory, with appropriations from the North Carolina General Assembly from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The work included a number of case studies. In Belmont, NC, city economic development staff piloted the “Keep the Lights on in Belmont” program to draw residents back into the city’s historic downtown to support local businesses. This program eventually grew to include an emergency loan fund for locally owned businesses, financed from the city’s general fund, leveraging the expertise and resources of the city and its partners with strong community buy-in to keep downtown Belmont vibrant through the pandemic.

Other local communities needed solutions that reached across city limits and county lines to meet the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic and drive collaborative efforts into high gear. In New Bern, NC for example, city leaders leveraged statewide resources with existing private sector assets to protect local businesses. By bringing together state and local government tools with the private sector to position New Bern as a safe and accessible destination, the community achieved its goals of preserving local economic vitality, encouraging small business growth, and maintaining New Bern as a tourist destination in anticipation of a post-COVID return to leisure travel.

NC History Center in New Bern NC

The North Carolina History Center is New Bern’s “newest” attraction.

 

Innovations were more effective when they used data to inform their actions. In Caldwell County, local government used data to map broadband usage and, thereby, repositioned itself to provide increased broadband access to meet to thousands of students and professionals now logging in to school and work from home. In the private sector, the Carolina Textile District put contract and sourcing data to work to effectively pivot to meet demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) in the fight against COVID-19 and maintain production, despite the supply disruptions that rippled across industries over the past year and a half.

The NC Policy Collaboratory’s funding allowed the community innovations above to be profiled in these written case studies and in webinars that included hundreds of local officials.

 

Understanding and Responding to the Challenges Ahead Through Carolina Across 100

Even in the face of pandemic hardships, many local communities have pointed out a number of positives that they’ve taken from the experience of living, working, and governing through a once-in-a-century emergency.

Through early rounds of stakeholder engagement in 2020, they cited a greater number of partnerships among neighbors, civic groups, and private sector residents who circled the wagons to meet challenges head-on. Others talked about the growth of a non-traditional tourism sector as people sought to get away from their own home quarantine bubbles, bringing dollars into new communities, while still respecting COVID guidelines. Nearly all referenced COVID as a wake-up call, shining a spotlight on needs that had been unnoticed or unaddressed, and highlighting new ways to tackle them with the lessons and tools gained from the pandemic.

The Black Farmer's Market in Durham, NC

Black Farmer’s Market in NC (Image via @theblackfarmersmarketnc/Instagram)

 

Carolina Across 100 is a five year initiative – charged by Kevin Guskiewicz, Chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – working to understand what strategies work for recovery from this unprecedented pandemic and how these lessons might be customized and applied to other communities across the state. Brown-Graham explained that the Carolina Across 100 team will be collaborating with communities across North Carolina, faculty across the University, and experts from across the country to co-create solutions that help improve and expand the prospects for economic and social recovery across the state. Drawing from analysis of over 3,200 responses to a recent Carolina Across 100 survey and dozens of in-depth interviews with stakeholders from across the state, the Carolina Engagement Council is evaluating the data and plans to announce its first program of work in early 2022.

 

American Rescue Plan Act Course

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) has provided unprecedented federal funds to local governments to help with their COVID recovery efforts, but some municipalities and counties will need planning and administrative capacity supports to put these funds to work and comply with federal and state regulations. Invested responsibly, ARPA money has the potential to make a transformational impact on many of the issues in education, business development, infrastructure that communities prioritized in the Carolina Across 100 survey noted above.

Brown-Graham explained the UNC School of Government’s work to make sure that local governments across the state, especially those in small towns and rural counties, can access and spend ARPA money legally and responsibly. Over 1,200 people – at least one from each of North Carolina’s 100 counties – registered for the Basics of the American Rescue Plan Act course. The course was offered free of charge by the School of Government, to remove any barriers cost may have presented to those who needed access to this critical information. In addition, recordings of the sessions have been viewed more than 1,500 times and counting, demonstrating both the need and the reach of such a program. It is important to note that the School of Government could not have done this work without its wonderful partners, as shown in the image below.

 

Examining the Rural and Urban Angles

While the contrast between rural and urban areas often gets more press, the similarities between the challenges they faced from COVID-19 far outnumber differences. Indeed there was no significant difference in how residents across all counties ranked the three top challenges from COVID-19 in our recent survey.

Members of the Subcommittee asked Brown-Graham a number of questions about the research she presented in her testimony, especially as it applied to rural areas. Echoing their concerns, Brown-Graham reiterated the UNC School of Government’s commitment to small towns and rural areas, pointing out that the ARPA course which ncIMPACT helped lead had a majority of participants from rural counties, and the Keys to Economic Recovery research focused mainly on areas outside of the state’s major urban hubs. Further, Carolina Across 100 is specifically designed to leverage the resources of the state’s oldest public university to the advantage of places often left out of other large scale partnerships.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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