Rutherford County August 2022

Population
68,845

County Seat
Rutherfordton

Median Income
$42,608

Population Density Designation
Rural

Our visit to Rutherford County was hosted by Isothermal Community College (ICC). We began our morning in Lake Lure before driving to the College to begin our day.

We discussed the state of Rutherford County over a breakfast of pastries and livermush biscuits. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of livermush, it is a regional delicacy that consists of pork and cornmeal that is often pan-fried and served alongside other breakfast staples. It was a true taste of western North Carolina as we discussed the issues and opportunities before the county.

ICC president Margaret Annunziata began the conversation by welcoming us to the college and the communities they serve. Annunziata said that the college’s engagement efforts were rooted in “showing up authentically and having real conversations.”

The college’s efforts are designed to meet the residents of Rutherford County “where they are” according to Annunziata, and to then work alongside businesses, government and K-12 schools to bolster mobility and hopefully provide equitable outcomes in an effort to create a community that ultimately thrives.

John Bostwick, the Chief Financial Officer for Rutherford Regional Health System, noted the college and community as a whole are working to spark positive outcomes against the backdrop of a declining population of working-age adults, and a population growth largely centered around Medicare-eligible residents. Community-wide challenges include inequitable access to broadband internet access. In an area where Facebook hosts data servers and communities along I-77 have great broadband, many other areas in the county lack both broadband internet and cell service.

“People want to settle down here,” noted Bostwick as he pointed to the proximity to major cities, lakes, recreational areas and horse farms. However, affordable, quality workforce housing is a challenge — particularly exacerbated by the rise of popularity of both retiring to the area and having a second home. Bostwick noted the hospital has had challenges filling vacant positions that flowed in part from recruited physicians and medical experts not being able to find suitable housing.

Access to health care also remains a challenge for some parts of the county. Carol Pritchett, Mayor of Lake Lure, noted that while the lakeside community is beautiful, they are isolated and lack access to care. Other community members echoed Mayor Pritchett and pointed out that fire and safety officials ultimately end up serving as the frontline of providing health care and transportation to health care facilities.

“If we can’t meet the basic needs of health for our people, then our other goals as a county won’t matter,” declared Karen Powell, Health Director, Foothills Health District.

ICC, local government and business leaders all agree: educational attainment for the residents of the county (whether through a high-quality degree or industry-recognized credential) will be key for the long-term success of the region. Annunziata noted it is on the entire educational system, from early childhood through post-secondary, to work together to better serve everyone in the county. Annunziata pointed out that this must include the workforce declaring, “College should not look the same for everyone, but the one constant must be college leading to the ability to have a good, productive life at the end of the degree or credential.”

Our visit to Rutherford County included a visit to Rutherford Early College High School where we were able to see the ReACH Omegabytes robotics team. The students that comprised the team inspired us all with their passion and dedication to both team success and developing skills that would lend themselves to success in the modern world.

“We are optimistic about the future because of the students we serve,” declared Annunziata. After watching the Omegabytes, any independent observer could see why.

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, 10/22