RALEIGH, N.C. – Despite all the political bombast that is delivered in the North Carolina General Assembly about the need to create more jobs in the state’s rural areas, one program that has clearly worked is in trouble.
The e-NC Authority, as we wrote on Friday, faces a dramatic cut in its budget for the coming fiscal year despite data in two bills that spell out the successes the organization has achieved since its launch in 2001.
A Senate bill backed by Tony Rand and a House bill co-authored by Joe Tolson, both powerful Democrats, note that e-NC created seven of “telecenters” that have created more than 1,675 jobs and generated $221 million in “direct revenue” plus state tax revenues of more than $14.5 million. The cost? $3.19 million in state funding.
Rand and Tolson want to create two additional centers in their legislation.
Yet despite this demonstrated return on investment, these bills and the $1 million in e-NC agency funding face dim prospects as Gov. Perdue and General Assembly leaders grapple with a multi-billion state deficit. In fact, the Senate-approved budget already whacks e-NC in half t less than $500,000.
The two bills also call for $12.5 million in one-time funds that e-NC can use in grants to incent private broadband providers to expand high-speed Internet access across the state. The providers must at least match e-NC grants and compete through a bidding process.
The goal: Enable 75 percent of households in all 100 counties to have access to broadband.
The funding also could be used to help communities and organizations “that need to provide a match to receive funds from the broadband stimulus monies available from the federal government,” the legislation says.
The current telecenters, by the way, are:
• Blue Ridge Business Development Center in Sparta, Alleghany County.
• New Ventures Business Development, Inc., in Wadesboro, Anson County.
• Tri-County Community College TeleCenter in Murphy, Cherokee County.
• Northeast Technology & Business Center in Williamston, Martin County.
• The Roanoke Center in Rich Square, Northampton County.
• Rockingham County Business & Technology Center in Wentworth, Rockingham County.
• Foothills Connect Business & Technology Center in Rutherfordton, Rutherford County.
Rand and Tolson are seeking $1.5 million to upgrade these centers as well as to add the additional ones. The money would “support public Internet access sites in communities with low levels of connectivity and to provide digital literacy programs and access to communities with low participation rates in the digital economy. These funds shall be granted through a formal request for proposals process. These funds will be utilized to assist the public access centers refresh the technology equipment they have been using for the past five years. Their current equipment shall be refurbished and utilized by the local public access center or local school in a lending program for students who do not have a computer at home.”
In the ever increasingly intense competition for dollars, it will be interesting t see if these rural initiatives will flourish or wither.