Burke County June 2022


County Seat

Median Income

Population Density Designation

Our trip to Burke County began at Little Guatemala─ a family-owned business in Morganton─ where the owner, Christian Ramazzini, and Western Piedmont Community College (WPCC) president Joel Welch welcomed us to the county. Little Guatemala is designed, in Ramazzini’s words, to “serve Guatemalan products, showcase Guatemalan culture, and serve as a bridge between cultures.”

When you walk in the door of Little Guatemala you’re greeted by the smells of coffee roasting, pastries baking and savory food items on an open-top grill. A diverse set of community members met us out on the covered patio and explained that Burke County has chosen to embrace its strengths — a large population of government employees, natural resources, proximity to Charlotte and Asheville and a cluster of educational entities including the North Carolina School for the Deaf, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) and WPCC.

They also showcased three initiatives — the Hometown Walkabout, Industrial Commons and Work in Burke. The common theme among the three programs is an emphasis on showcasing those local strengths to their own citizens and building out collaborations that support their assets — with an emphasis on retaining talented residents who might otherwise depart the region.

Tea Yang, who leads the Industrial Commons, spoke about these strengths as, “a catalyst for Burke County to deliver a twenty-year vision.”

We left Little Guatemala for a driving tour of the shared campuses for North Carolina School for the Deaf, NCSSM and WPCC.

Elected and appointed community leaders met us at WPCC for a conversation about the opportunities in the county, the existing challenges and the solutions they are collectively working towards to increase opportunity for all of their citizens.

County commissioners and town council members walked us through their investment in natural resources including amenities around Lake James such as the Fonta Flora Activity Trail; investments in their own people including a recent pay increase for county employees; and support to move from a “Main Street community people drive by on their way to other places” to a place where people want to visit, live and build a life.

Rus Scherer, Human Resources Director for the City of Morganton, told us their strategy could be summed up by saying, “We look at what we have, ask ourselves what we can do to maximize it, and make those investments as soon as we are able to do so with buy-in from the community.”

A common theme among all the conversations was the embrace of the diversity of the county. Danny Scalise, Public Health Director, Burke County Health Department, walked us through their intentional one-to-one outreach among both the Hmong and Guatemalan communities in Burke County.

We closed the conversation with a focus on education. Kevin Baxter, Vice Chancellor & Chief Campus Officer for NCSSM-Morganton, walked us through the process for the school to land in Morganton noting the “unbelievable support of the broader community and region” to make the school happen ahead of officially opening their doors in the fall of 2022. Johnnie Carswell, Vice Chairman, Burke County Commissioners, had earlier noted the investment from the state of North Carolina that helped make the school happen would serve as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” for the entire region.

Mark Patrick, the School Director for the North Carolina School for the Deaf, and Mike Swan, the Superintendent for Burke County Schools, both spoke to the level of collaboration from WPCC in supporting the dual enrollment of students across the educational continuum, sourcing employees and more.

We ended our morning in Burke County with lunch from local barbeque restaurant JD’s Smokehouse. As our conversation concluded, Fran Gary, Vice President of Government Markets for Blue Cross NC, told the assembled community leaders, “I wish we could bottle up this community spirit and sense of collaboration and export it everywhere.”

Meet Dr. Algie Gatewood

Dr. Algie Gatewood is only the fourth President to lead Alamance Community College (ACC) since it opened in 1958. During Dr. Gatewood’s tenure at ACC, the college won its largest ever bond referendum – nearly $40 million – in 2018 to fund a number of major capital projects and expansions. The college also secured $16 million in county funding in 2014 to build the Advanced Applied Technology Center. Other notable accomplishments include creating a Biotechnology Center of Excellence, introducing an Early College, facilitating an apprenticeship program, and introducing nearly two dozen new academic programs and articulation agreements with state universities.

U39702, 12/22