Twenty-two counties in North Carolina have a different economic “tier” designation going into 2021, but Moore County isn’t among them.
The roots of the state’s three-level tier system date back to the 1980s. It is used to determine each area’s relative prosperity or distress, calculated annually. That calculation includes a county’s average unemployment rate, median household income, percentage growth in population (for the most recent 36 months), and adjusted property tax base per capita.
Assuming there are no ties in the rankings, state law requires a 40-40-20 split between its 100 counties. Each year, 40 counties are designated Tier 1, which is considered the most economically distressed and disadvantaged. Forty other counties are designated Tier 2 and 20 counties are designated Tier 3, considered the most well-off.
Moore County consistently ranks in Tier 3, meaning it qualifies for little, if any, assistance from the state for a variety of programs.
By contrast, all of Moore’s neighboring counties along its southern border are ranked Tier 1, including Richmond, Scotland, Hoke and Cumberland counties. Directly east and west of Moore, Montgomery, Lee and Harnett counties are ranked Tier 2.
Only Chatham County to the north is also ranked Tier 3. Moore and Chatham are similar in that their counties experience “split prosperity.” Chatham’s northern stretch, which borders Chapel Hill, accounts for its Tier 3 status, while Moore’s southern communities of Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen account for its economic strength.
For 2021, Hoke County shifted from Tier 2 to Tier 1 largely due to a change in the county’s median household income rank. The N.C. Department of Commerce also shifted Randolph County from Tier 2 to Tier 1 largely driven by a change in the county’s unemployment rate.
“The current method is archaic and no longer reflects reality,” said Pat Corso, executive director of Partners in Progress, the county’s economic development arm. “The bottom line is distress does not respect county lines and the system treats each county like it is an island unto itself.”
There are seven or eight counties like Moore and Chatham, where economic prosperity is in one concentrated area while other parts of the same county may be highly impoverished.
“The system is what it is because it’s easy to say you have 40, 40 and 20. And the way the tier works, it applies to so many programs. If you reform it, you’re not just reforming one aspect of economic development. You have to reform the whole thing,” said Corso. “It’s not like this hasn’t been studied to death. The challenge is that there is very little appetite in the General Assembly for reform.”
There was a push for legislation last year to grant rural Tier 3 counties access to some assistance for projects in distressed areas. This would have meant potential funding for infrastructure improvements only, like roads or sewer lines, but the legislation didn’t advance.
“We complain about the tier system,” Corso said, “but there has not been an extraordinary effort to address its inequalities: its unfairness. Distress is all around us.”
A better model, in his view, would be a restructuring of the tier system to allocate resources where they can be most beneficial on a regional level.
Southern Moore County, specifically the Aberdeen, Pinehurst and Southern Pines “micropolitan” has an economic impact that extends far beyond its boundaries. In fact, for the third consecutive year Moore County has ranked as the top micropolitan in North Carolina and in the top 10 percent nationally in terms of economic strength for a small economy.
Corso said a better tier system would recognize the interdependence between counties, pictured as a hub-and-spoke economy.
Moore County is an example of such a hub, with approximately 15-16,000 people commuting both in-and-out of the area daily for work.
“Companies are looking for areas with interstate access and infrastructure like natural gas lines. You start looking at the economic development checklist and most rural counties get dismissed fairly quickly,” he said. “But if you could look one county over (from the distressed area), they might meet the company’s criteria.”
“Our strength is in how we really do work and that is in clusters.”