That is what Swain County leaders and residents have been working on since last year when the Golden LEAF Foundation awarded the county $2 million in one-time grant funding — a targeted initiative to lift some of the state’s most economically deprived counties. After several rounds of focus groups and public meetings, community stakeholders have settled on these goals: lowering the unemployment rate, decreasing the number of high school dropouts, and expanding and improving Bryson City’s water system.
“Those are good targeted problems that we need to address,” said Swain County Manager Kevin King.
The Golden LEAF Foundation is a nonprofit that gives grants to economically distressed or rural communities. In 2007, the organization created a rigorous new program that helps the poorest counties in North Carolina by giving each the chance to tackle a few inherent problems that plague them. The counties can receive up to $2 million without going through the typical competitive grant application process.
Swain County started the program last year with general public meetings to create a master list of things in need of improvement. From there, participating residents and leaders looked at what problems were most pressing.
“They are continuing to have to make tough decisions,” said Pat Cabe, vice president of programs, community assistance and outreach with Golden LEAF. “There is so much that people want to get done.”
One of the strings attached to the cash is benchmarks to measure improvement.
“You want to set forth those aspirations and goals and then begin to look at those projects that help you get there,” Cabe said.
And that is where Swain County is now. Focuses were narrowed. Goals were set. Next, participants must brainstorm ways to achieve those goals. The final step will be actually applying to Golden Leaf for the money to pull it off. Leaders at the nonprofit will critique the projects and pick which to fund.
As of March, unemployment in Swain County was 16.7 percent — double the national unemployment rate. While unemployment elsewhere is creeping down, it’s remained stubbornly high in Swain.
“Any unemployment is too high,” Cabe said.
Because Swain County’s main commodity is tourism, jobs fluctuate with the time of year. Seasonal employees will only work six to nine months out of the year, causing the county’s unemployment rates to shoot up in the winter.
But, Golden Leaf meeting attendees want to see that change. Within the next five years, they want to see a 10 percent growth in jobs, a greater variety of jobs and more local opportunities for skills training.
The county is already working toward the latter with the recent opening of the Swain County Regional Business Education and Training Center, which leaders see as a place for businesses to host employee training and Southwestern Community College to teach continuing education courses and workforce development.
Also by increasing the different types of jobs, more young adults who grew up in the county may choose to stay there. Currently, only about 5 percent of college graduates return to Swain County.
Going hand in hand with increasing job prospects is an expansion of Bryson City’s current water system toward the western part of the county. Water is a necessary amenity for businesses looking to locate in a certain area. Economic development officials could use new water lines to draw in companies.
“You are just hoping you are making your area more attractive,” said Bryson City Mayor Tom Sutton.
In addition to expanding the water system, Golden Leaf participants want to improve what is already in place. It is well known that Bryson City has a water loss problem due to leaks. The system is old; some pipes were installed in 1920s and are in desperate need of replacement.
“There is a lot of just age,” Sutton said.
While the water pumped into the system is good, about 25 to 30 percent of it is lost, and the town must eat that cost. But that number is actually down. At its height, the town’s water loss rate topped out at 50 percent, Sutton said.
With help from the Golden Leaf funds, town and county leaders want to see the water loss rate drop to 10 percent or below. Sutton called the goal “optimistic.”
Keeping kids in school
The high school dropout rate in Swain County is already down to 3.7 percent from 6 to 7 percent in prior years, but those attending the Golden Leaf meetings want to make further strides and try to reduce the number of dropouts by 10 percent each year.
By getting students more involved in school and community activities, the group hopes to see dropout rates decline. At a meeting in February, attendees said a decrease in dropouts would translate to fewer incarcerations.
Also listed as goals are to increase the literacy rate to 90 percent or above and ensure more students have access to computers.
Want to weigh in?
Golden LEAF Foundation representatives will meet with Swain County leaders, business owners and residents at 5:30 p.m. May 23 at the Swain County Regional Business Education and Training Center on Buckner Branch Road. The meeting is open to the public.