As president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, an organization directed to help transform the economy of rural, tobacco-dependent, economically distressed areas of our state almost 20 years ago, I’m often asked what we are doing and what needs to be done to fulfill our mission to increase economic opportunities in North Carolina, especially from friends and colleagues in Robeson County.
Although our headquarters are in Rocky Mount, I spend much time in this area. When I was first hired almost 10 years ago, I visited one of the Golden LEAF board members who operated tobacco warehouses in Lumberton to discuss my vision for the Foundation. I expressed the concern that if Golden LEAF failed to focus on this area, then we were missing the point of our entire enterprise, and pledged to work to support economic opportunity down here. I hope our record here bears out that heartfelt commitment.
I was in Robeson County Wednesday to celebrate a marvelous achievement by Robeson County students. Thirteen Robeson County high school graduates, the most ever from a single county in my tenure, will be provided up to $12,000 in financial aid to attend college in North Carolina. These 13 — and 202 scholars from all the other counties eligible for our assistance — competed in a field of 2,600. These students will be able to also participate in leadership development and receive paid internships in their field of study, so long as they complete that internship in a rural county like Robeson. It’s not a sustainable policy to have students leave and never come back home, so this combination of factors helps show scholars that there are opportunities and businesses that there is a very capable labor pool.
We are serious about our investment in people in this county. Chancellor Robin Cummings is aggressively building on UNC-Pembroke’s strong tradition, and we have provided over $2 million to the university for equipping the new business school facility and for the UNCP incubator in downtown Pembroke. Robeson Community College has almost a million dollars in funding from Golden LEAF, mainly for its pathbreaking advanced manufacturing training.
Moreover, at Southeastern Regional Medical Center, almost 50 Campbell University medical students and residents benefit from an education facility that Golden LEAF helped support at the hospital, as we know that those who learn to practice medicine in a rural setting are more likely to stay in such a place when they earn their degrees and complete their residencies.
It’s not just training people; it’s attracting jobs. Golden LEAF has provided millions to this county to aid aggressive economic development efforts to recruit companies like Sanderson Farms and Trinity Foods. Former economic developer Greg Cummings and current director Channing Jones have us on speed dial to partner on these ventures.
But perhaps our latest work proves the value of our deep connection to Robeson County. As many still face struggles to recover from Hurricane Matthew, Golden LEAF has awarded over $10.3 million in assistance to local governments, the Lumbee Tribe, the public schools and others to rebuild and replace infrastructure damaged by the disaster. The General Assembly asked us to take on this task because legislators realized our deep relationships in this region would help get the money flowing as fast as possible.
Bo Biggs, a prominent local businessman, represents the third Golden LEAF Board member from Robeson County, all who have served with distinction. His persistent and passionate commitment, coupled with a deep belief in the possibility of the region, serve us well.
We know that some areas of the state are doing better than others and applaud our state leaders who have recognized that challenge and supported comprehensive efforts to improve the playing field statewide. The Golden LEAF Foundation pledges to support this vision by continuing to do our part to help Robeson County and the surrounding areas grow and prosper.
Dan Gerlach is president of the Golden LEAF Foundation, which was established to provide financial help to local economies that have struggled because of the demise of the tobacco industry.