Skip to Main Content

Speaking Out: In a changing and diverse world, municipalities need flexibility 

by League President and Elkin Mayor Lestine Hutchens

There has been a lot of news lately about the changing demographics of our state. That we are changing is not news. How we are changing is. Of course, for years we have been hearing about how the overall population of the state is growing. Already at more than 10 million people, North Carolina’s population is expected to grow by another 2 million people by 2030.

And we know that demographers have been talking a lot about the graying of America for many years. A Forbes magazine examination of aging trends recently suggested that residents in North Carolina’s larger cities are not as old as those in larger cities in other parts of the country. But those same trends suggested that our state is seeing more growth in the senior population and will continue to do so over the next decade or two.

Legislators were recently looking at some other population trends as they weighed what all this will mean for the state’s transportation needs in coming years. Data from the Carolina Population Center showed that the number of millennials in our state will soon be larger than the number of Baby Boomers. The also received these numbers regarding seniors: By 2035, more than 20 percent of North

Carolina residents will be over the age of 65. And they were told that almost all the growth that will occur here over the next several years will occur in metropolitan areas; only 1 percent of all the state’s growth will take place in non-metropolitan areas, which is not news if you happen to live in those areas.

Interestingly enough, the legislators who heard those figures seemed to come to the conclusion that they might suggest a more flexible approach to transportation funding, with a focus both on getting workers to their places of employment while still maintaining the substantial network of roads needed to get goods to market.

If this changing world suggests that the state needs flexibility, the same should hold true for cities and towns. We have to acknowledge that different areas of the state are very different, and that the changes that are occurring are far from uniform. Our cities and towns already are diverse and unique, and that diversity creates very different needs for each. Thinking that one-size-fits-all answers can address those needs is folly. 

Kure Beach Mayor Emilie Swearingen, speaking at a League policy committee meeting held in Raleigh, talked about the very different circumstances in her town, where a summer tourism population generates big service needs even while the town has a fairly small sales tax base and has nowhere to grow. Kure Beach cannot address the needs of residents and visitors in the same way that a large city that is experiencing gang-buster growth can. It can’t meet those needs in the same manner as an old mill town like my town, Elkin.

As a retail center at the junction of three largely rural counties, our sales tax situation is different. At the same time, neither Raleigh, Charlotte nor Kure Beach has seen the types of job losses that mill communities like Elkin has experienced.

Whether big city or small town, whether on the coast, the foothills or the mountains, the only kind of response that is going to keep pace with this diverse and changing world is a local response. It’s why North Carolina municipalities need their local decision-making authority protected and enhanced.