Montgomery County July 2023


County Seat

Median Income

Population Density Designation

The Extra Miles Tour’s two primary stops in Montgomery County couldn’t seem more different. First, we visited FirstHealth Montgomery Memorial Hospital in Troy, NC to learn about an innovative dental care program for children. Then it was off to the Montgomery Sheep Farm in Biscoe, which is powered by a massive solar field big enough to provide electricity to the entire town.

Despite the apparent contrast, both stops revolved around two shared themes: 1) the importance of providing access to healthy choices around eating, and 2) the important roles cutting-edge technologies play outside North Carolina’s major metropolitan areas.

FirstHealth began prioritizing childhood oral health after area schools identified dental care as the number one unmet need. Since the program launched in 1998, it has served more than 30,000 patients. In its first year of operation, 70% of the patients it served had never seen a dentist or had not seen one in more than a year. Today, most cases focus on preventive, rather than restorative, care.

How has this homegrown program had such a sizeable impact? FirstHealth established two permanent facilities in Montgomery County middle schools, where dentists can set up shop for regular clinics. In addition, thanks to grants through the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation and other organizations, FirstHealth is also able to operate a portable clinic that rotates around other area schools. Dr. Paul Hood explained how, when he visits a school, children don’t come to the van … the equipment comes to them: It’s light enough for him to carry into unused classrooms or other empty spaces (as long as they have adequate power and water). This portability delivers access to exams, X-rays, cleanings, sealants, silver diamine fluoride treatments and restorative care in a familiar environment where students feel comfortable.

This approach lowers roadblocks that routinely prevent young people from seeking dental care: Cost, transportation, fear, lack of provider access and other factors. At the same time, the dental program minimizes disruptions to student learning.

FirstHealth’s long-term goals are to expand the reach to include Head Start programs and Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as community centers, churches and senior centers so that adults too have better access to oral care.

FirstHealth’s Director of Dental Care Dr. Sharon Harrell was quick to add that, despite its portability, this dental program offers the same high-tech, state-of-the-art services as any other practice.

“We are able to roll out the red carpet for people who don’t often have a red carpet rolled out for them,” she told us, proudly.

Following the discussion in Troy, our visit to Montgomery County shifted attention from cutting-edge technology on a small scale to massive technology that delivers big things.

Just over a decade ago, Blue Cross NC invested in a large-scale solar energy project envisioned by Joel Olson, CEO of O2 Group Ventures. The partnership transformed 200 acres of depleted land on a local hunting preserve into a solar-powered sheep farm. When the Extra Miles Tour stopped in for a visit, we were treated to icy refreshments at the farm’s banquet facilities – just in time for everyone to cool off before setting out on our guided tour of the grounds on a very hot July afternoon.

What we saw was a remarkable transformation. The once-barren fields are now lush with grasses, vegetables and 106,000 solar panels, which provide shade to ~500 sheep (not to mention the great Pyrenees dogs who patrol the fence line looking for gaps and coyotes) and generate 28,000 megawatts of electricity annually.

As our guide, Mr. Olson, made clear, Blue Cross NC’s initial investment has helped North Carolina lead the way in reducing carbon emissions through our investments in this and other solar projects across the state. This project also powers the area’s eco and culinary tourism, strengthening the local economy.

Just how “cutting-edge” is this facility, nestled in a very rural area in North Carolina? It’s earned enough of a national reputation that Tesla recently delivered the first two prototypes of a new battery, straight from the factory to Montgomery, for the sheep farm to test.

Later, we reconvened at the banquet facilities for a community dinner, joined by a wide variety of community, business and health care leaders. The meal, presented by Sun Raised Foods, exemplified farm-to-table eating – after all, our table was literally pitched at the very farm where the bulk of the meal was raised, grown and prepared. Our hosts emphasized the health benefits of eating local, both directly (given the nutritional benefits of fresh foods) and indirectly (given how eating local supports area farmers and entrepreneurs, strengthening community economies and well-being).

The conversation around the table covered a wide range of topics, ranging from the county’s lack of prenatal and pediatric care to the mental health and substance use crisis which has left the county jail operating at capacity.

Near the end of the evening, our hosts issued an informal wager, betting that we’d remember at least one thing from our visit to Montgomery County: That the nearby town of Star is noteworthy for being the geographic center of our state. This source of local pride provoked chuckles across the room, but it also resonated in ways that invited serious reflection. The challenges Montgomery County faces resemble what’s happening in so many rural communities across the state; Star isn’t just the geographical center, it’s also “in the middle of” so much of what’s happening to North Carolinians.

At the same time, county leaders are also strategizing how to capitalize on the area’s unique assets to highlight Montgomery as a “great place to live, work and play.” The successful initiatives at FirstHealth and the Montgomery Sheep Farm underscored how the combination of innovative thinking, strategic collaboration and high-tech creativity that is driving community health and well-being is also making Montgomery County a center of attention.

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U39702, 8/23