Carolina's compass for public strategies
Search this site          


Regional Issues

A More Competitive Regional Strategy
for North Carolina


The North Carolina Progress Board is empowered by the General Assembly to set and monitor long-range performance targets for the state. In 2005, the Board adopted a new Strategic Scorecard System for tracking statewide targets and delivered it to the General Assembly. While our new statewide scorecard system has been well received, the Progress Board has concluded that statewide indicators alone are not enough.

North Carolina is a large and diverse state, and statewide data can obscure crucial regional disparities. Community-driven targets can help inform the statewide system and spur more collaborative—and concerted—action in all corners of our state. The North Carolina Progress Board, in accord with its enabling statute and the General Assembly’s support, plans to tailor its statewide Strategic Scorecard System to the state’s regions, and thereby provide a tool to help regional leaders gauge their competitiveness. But, how can we attain this goal without first understanding North Carolina’s regions?

A Profile of North Carolina’s Regions

What are our regions? Generally, they comprise multiple communities (and even metro areas), often without regard to state lines. They offer the largest scale at which we can readily hold government accountable, but the smallest scale at which we (usually acting through public agencies) can effectively address a growing number of challenges—demographic change, economic competition, energy, air and water quality, transportation, ecosystem viability and workforce preparation.

In geographic terms, most elementary school students learn that North Carolina has three major regions—the Coastal Plain, Piedmont and Mountains—and several geographic sub-regions (e.g., Outer Banks, Tidewater and Sandhills). However, when considering other factors, our regions defy easy definition.

At first glance, the sheer number of localities in North Carolina belies any sense of regionalism. With 100 counties, 520 cities and towns, 115 school districts and over 320 special districts, and a relatively decentralized population, North Carolina is still viewed by many as a state of small jurisdictions. However, a closer look reveals a more nuanced portrait. With 14 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs)[1], our state comprises several dynamic (and growing) urban regions (see map of MSAs).

More significantly, regions have emerged in the 21 st Century as the basic building block of the global economy. Across North Carolina, we see evidence of the new economic reality—that state (and county) boundaries are increasingly irrelevant to major market forces. Many North Carolina citizens commute across state lines (e.g., Clay County to Chattanooga, Polk County to Spartanburg, Caswell County to Danville and Gates, Camden and Currituck counties to Virginia Beach). Even more citizens from adjoining states commute to our cities (e.g., South Carolina to Charlotte). Beyond our state borders, where our most promising investors reside and our most serious competitors prowl, we are seen more and more as regions, not cities or counties.

Whether we like it or not, North Carolina is no longer a mere conglomeration of isolated communities, towns and counties. In fact, our largest economic regions—Charlotte, Research Triangle and Piedmont Triad—have established successful brand names that eclipse the names of their component jurisdictions, if not the state.

State Policy on Regionalism

Even as they have struggled with finding the right approach, our state leaders have long found that some of our most intractable problems require greater regional cooperation. They also have sensed that public resources might be used more efficiently with well-conceived regional service delivery models.

In the late 1960s [2], the General Assembly empowered local governments to create regional entities (e.g., regional planning commissions, economic development commissions and councils of governments). By 1971, state government created regional planning districts and required state agencies to select lead regional entities. [3] Since 1972, 17 regional councils of government (COGs) have assisted local governments with community development and served as area agencies on aging (see map of COGs). 

Since the 1970’s, our state government has created a patchwork of regional structures to improve the delivery of state services (perhaps as many regional schemes as it has agencies). A representative sample of regional districts is shown in the table below.

North Carolina State Government Regional Schemes

State Agency

Regional Scheme or Configuration

Transportation Department

14 Transportation Districts (see NCDOT map)

State Highway Patrol

8 Highway Patrol Districts (Troops)

Community College System


3 Small Business Center Network regions

6 training districts

Department of Public Instruction


4 regional licensing centers

9 regional education service alliances/consortia

Department of Environment & Natural Resources

7 regional offices & forecast zones (see map)

Public Health Division, DHHS [4]

7 regional surveillance areas (see map)

Aging & Adult Services Division, DHHS

17 Area Agencies on Aging (assigned to COGs)

Employment Security Division

24 Workforce Development Board areas

Department of Labor

10 compliance districts

Our state leaders also have promoted regional capacity through a network of regional economic development partnerships. North Carolina has seven economic development regions—Advantage West, Charlotte, Piedmont Triad, Research Triangle, Northeast, Eastern and Southeast. Those regions are shown below and in the attached map.

North Carolina ’s Regional
Economic Development Partnerships  


Population (2004)

Census Bureau MSAs

UNC Campus / Other Assets

Advantage West


Asheville & Hickory (part)

Appalachian State, UNCA, Western Carolina, Asheville Airport



Charlotte & Hickory (part)

UNC-Charlotte, Charlotte/Douglas IA

Piedmont Triad


Winston-Salem , Greensboro & Burlington

UNC-Greensboro, Winston-Salem, NC A & T, Piedmont-Triad Airport

Research Triangle


Raleigh & Durham

UNC-CH, NCSU, NC Central, Raleigh-Durham Airport



Elizabeth City State



Rocky Mount , Greenville, Goldsboro & Jacksonville

Eastern Carolina, Global TransPark, Morehead City Port



Wilmington & Fayetteville

UNC-Wilmington, Fayetteville State, UNC Pembroke, Wilmington Airport, Wilmington Port

Other state initiatives also have promoted regional capacity. For instance, in 2005, the Business & Education Technology Alliance issued a report to the General Assembly recommending a new technology vision and infrastructure. After concluding that “citizens should be able to compare their community to the nation on specific indicators, such as school technology, unemployment, poverty, education and connectivity,” it recommended that the Progress Board “report by county on the status of trends that reflect the impact of education on economic growth ....”

A growing number of North Carolina’s local government leaders view regionalism as an opportunity. In recognition of the growing need for regional cooperation, the League of Municipalities and Association of County Commissioners created the Joint Regional Forum, an advisory body comprising 19 local elected officials, to analyze regional issues and recommend new regional policies. Some local governments have used regional cooperation to achieve discrete—and marketable—goals (e.g., infrastructure projects).

Still, North Carolina’s regional capacity remains inconsistent, and its approach to regionalism lacks coherency. The regional economic development partnerships have been under growing political scrutiny. The COGs have survived, but their resources and reach remain limited. North Carolina’s state government has yet to adopt a uniform regional structure for its agencies or even a coherent methodology for defining regions.

North Carolina is not alone. It is a tall order to devise an effective and politically viable regional strategy—and few (if any) states have. For starters, regionalism and its many forms (e.g., regional planning, coordination and governance) have been and continue to be poorly understood. Secondly, regions have historically lacked a natural political constituency. Thirdly, the resistance of short-sighted officials poses a formidable barrier. Finally, the clumsy articulation or implementation of regionalism can test the resolve of even the most visionary public leaders.

We may retain the state and local government structure that has served us since colonial times, but our global competitors, like China, understand the importance of thinking and acting regionally. Regionalism could become an important competitive advantage for those states bold enough to restructure their public agencies, services and finances around it. Will North Carolina seize the opportunity?

Next Steps

It is time to reexamine North Carolina’s regionalism policies, including the structure and performance of its regional initiatives. To compete globally, North Carolina needs a new approach to regionalism, with more effective, efficient and accountable regional entities. Michael Porter, in his 2004 study of the Research Triangle region, recommended regionalism as a critical economic development strategy.

Critics of regional agencies are right when they argue that the state lacks sufficient metrics for holding regional entities accountable, but wrong when they question the need for regional coordination. Frank Daniels III, in describing the Raleigh-Durham region as a “bunch of co-dependent communities” and warning that, without “a common language among the political bodies, … we’ll continue to struggle,” could just as easily have been talking about every region in North Carolina.

North Carolina is no longer a state of hundreds of small communities, but one of dynamic economic regions. Will we be visionary enough to change our outmoded public policies and models to acknowledge—and capitalize on—this reality? Will we find ways to supplant local competition and parochialism with greater regional cooperation and capacity? If we can, we will bolster our state’s competitiveness and foster greater prosperity among those areas of our state that need it most.

[1]According to the US Census Bureau, North Carolina’s 14 MSA's are Asheville, Burlington, Charlotte, Durham, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Greenville, Goldsboro, Hickory, Jacksonville, Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Wilmington and Winston-Salem.
[2]In response to the federal Intergovernmental Cooperation Act.
[3]The Lead Regional Organization policy required state agencies to recognize a single regional entity in each region.

[4]Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS)