Service with a Side of Learning

The Carolina Economic Revitalization Corps

“From Murphy to Manteo,” the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill strives to meet the needs of the state. In the summer of 2009, the School of Government and the Office of Economic and Business Development teamed up to address the question: How can university resources connect with “low-capacity” rural areas across the state? The Carolina Economic Revitalization Corps (CERC) was born.

CERC's goals are to assist economically distressed communities and train graduate students by involving them in a diverse array of projects, from research on community needs, to identifying and writing federal, state and local grants. The specific needs of the areas determine the interns' work. Jason Nelson, CERC Project Director, says this “gives CERC interns real-world experience while focusing on the University's mission of serving North Carolina.”

Last summer, six Carolina graduate students from a variety of disciplines worked in communities across the state for 10 weeks of intensive public service with local Councils of Governments (COGs). Students continue to work with the COGs during the academic year.

Two of these CERC interns are Kendra Jensen, a second-year master's student in Public Administration, and Fredrick Davis, a second-year master's student studying City and Regional Planning.

Davis worked with the Northeast Commission that oversees 16 counties. He worked primarily in Gates and Chowan counties, focusing on marketing and business attraction and retention. A pilot extraction facility is a current vital objective. “Due to shifts in industry, the economy there has plummeted,” says Davis. “The area is primarily agricultural, so using natural resources native to the area has great potential to spur economic growth. The facility extracts components of local crops to be used for perfumes, biofuels and biotechnology. The facility will be an incubator for those types of businesses. Our hope is that the facility will attract them to this area and stimulate the economy.”

Governor Bev Perdue visited Chowan County to celebrate a new company's move to the area.

Governor Bev Perdue visited Chowan County to celebrate a new company's move to the area.

Jensen assisted the Kerr-Tar COG, which includes Warren and Vance counties, two of the most distressed counties in the state with alarming unemployment rates. Upon her arrival in Warren County, Jensen immediately dove into work on the Warren County Housing and Inventory Survey. Warren County was creating an inventory of every house and its condition. “I contributed to the summary report, which was a great opportunity to get right into things and learn about the community.”

Jensen also worked on a federal grant from the Economic Development Administration benefiting the Triangle North Project, consisting of four industrial parks in Franklin, Vance, Warren and Granville counties. The grant was awarded September 15; the funds will be used to construct an access road between US Highway 401 and the Triangle North Franklin Business Park, attracting employers and encouraging economic revitalization. “Seeing this project from implementation to grant award and having the opportunity to work on large grants and large-scale reports was so satisfying.”

A unique aspect of CERC internships is that the interns live in the communities they serve. Nelson believes this immersion element “makes the program a real success. Otherwise, the interns might be seen as unconnected and transient. Living there fosters a sense of partnership that being there a couple days per week cannot.”

For Jensen and Davis, this “boots on the ground” summer experience was an eye-opener. They see themselves engaged in similar work after graduation in May. Davis, a North Carolina native, says his ultimate goal is to become a city or county manager in North Carolina. Though most people in her field want to work in urban areas, Jensen says this experience changed her interests. “If I had the opportunity to work in a rural region, that would be my choice now. I would be absolutely happy working in rural development. Before, I didn't know where I was headed. It's exciting to have a narrowed focus and something that I feel passionate about.”

♦ Rebecca Prettyman