Why does it seem as though North Carolina is moving forward while Georgia is slipping backwards?
At last week’s Georgia Forward Forum at Macon State University, there was at least one answer to that question.
The keynote speaker of the day was Anita Brown-Graham, director of North Carolina State University’s Institute for Emerging Issues.
Back in the 1950s, North Carolina’s social and economic indicators were at the same level of Mississippi. It was a rural, tobacco- and textile-oriented economy, reminiscent of the old South.
But in the past 50 years, North Carolina has been gaining momentum. In 1990, the population was in North Carolina was 6 million; today it’s 9.5 million; and by 2030, it is estimated there will be 13 million people.
“How did North Carolina acquire a long-range view? It was through collaboration, leadership and innovation,” Brown-Graham said. “It took time for the pay-off to become apparent.”
Last year, Research Triangle celebrated its 50th anniversary. More often than not, North Carolina is viewed as being a progressive center for scientific research and development.
North Carolina has been building a passenger rail network throughout the state, including implementation plans for high speed rail. Charlotte has been viewed as the banking center for the Southeast. And the state has become recognized for its enlightened development and alternative energy policies.
Just like Georgia, North Carolina is becoming more urban. In the next 20 years, nearly 90 percent of the growth will be in 15 counties, and 62 percent of the growth will be in just two counties — Wake County, which includes Raleigh; the Mecklenburg, which includes Charlotte.
The Institute for Emerging Issues has helped guide North Carolina through its transformation from a rural to an urban economy.
“We were created by Gov. Jim Hunt,” Brown-Graham said. “We spend all of our time thinking about North Carolina’s future. We identify big challenges and unique opportunities and enduring capacity for progress.”
Hunt spent four terms — 16 years — as governor of North Carolina — from 1977 to 1985 and from 1993 to 2001. Hunt continues to serve as chairman of the Institute for Emerging Issues.
“We are not a think tank. We don’t write a lot of white papers. We are conveners. We bring people together,” Brown-Graham said. “We ask people to identify the challenges and work on the response and then they go and work in their sphere of influence.”
About a year ago, the board of Central Atlanta Progress began getting concerned about divisiveness in Georgia and how there wasn’t consensus between the various areas of the state.
They decided to launch the Georgia Forward initiative to try to bring disparate elements of the state together in a one-day forum. In preparing for the forum, the organizers realized that communities all over the state have their own plans and visions — but there is no statewide vision or plan.
Compare that to North Carolina.
“We take on the big issues,” Brown-Graham said. “We decided North Carolina needed to reform energy.” The Institute convened the diverse constituencies, including utility companies and environmental groups — and brought them together “in the same room, at the same time.”
Out of those meetings, a consensus agenda was reached an presented to the General Assembly.
“It was the easiest energy-related bill to pass,” Brown-Graham said. “The work was done on the front end.”
Similar consensus agendas have been reached on infrastructure issues, health care and education — all with the common goal of moving North Carolina forward.
Brown-Graham explained that about 25 years ago, Gov. Hunt started the Emerging Issues Forum — a two-day conference to bring leaders of the state to focus on its most important issues.
“Around 2000, the governor realized that it was like a revival with great energy and a lot of excitement, and then everyone went back to their lives,” Brown-Graham said. “He wanted to make sure the good ideas that were put on the table were followed through.”
Another key strategic decision was to make sure the conferences were bi-partisan and that “every voice is being heard.”
Compare that to the current climate in Georgia, where partisan politics have almost brought the state to a stand still. Rural members of the state legislature often seem to be anti-Atlanta, while many metro legislators don’t have a clear understanding of the issues outside of the region.
So while Georgia’s leadership has become increasingly fragmented, it has given North Carolina an opportunity to pull ahead.
At the end of her talk, I asked Brown-Graham to comment on how North Carolina views Georgia today.
“North Carolina talks a lot about being a leader in the Southeast,” she said. “The truth is that we are more concerned about being a national leader rather than a regional leader. We are looking at states at the top of the list.”
In other words, that was Brown-Graham’s polite way of saying that it is looking at Georgia in its rearview mirror.
Let’s hope it’s not too late for Georgia to get its act together and develop a common vision for the state.
The Georgia Forward initiative could end up being our best hope for real progress.