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N.C. Local Government Service Corps project to help economically distressed communities

MPA_Group_t.jpgBOONE—North Carolina is considered one of the most progressive states in the nation when it comes to incorporating the town/county manager model of local government. All 100 counties in the state have professional administration, but about one-third of the state’s 500-plus cities or towns do not, usually because of financial constraints.

Appalachian State University and UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Government are sharing a $764,348 grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation to try to address that problem.

Tyler Beardsley Amanda Reid Dr. Marvin Hoffman.jpgAppalachian State University graduate students Tyler Beardsley, back left, and Amanda Reid are participating in a pilot program called the N.C. Local Government Service Corps. After graduating from Appalachian’s master of public administration degree program, they will work for two years as a town or county manager in an economically distressed community in the state. Also pictured is Dr. Marvin Hoffman, director of Appalachian’s MPA program. (Photo by University Photographer Marie Freeman)

The grant is funding a pilot a program called N.C. Local Government Service Corps that will place four master of public administration (MPA) graduates – two from each school – in economically distressed communities in the state.

The grant will pay tuition and fees for each student’s second year of graduate school, an assistant-ship and paid internship. The grant will also fund their salary for two years, with each participating town or city contributing 20 percent of the salary cost.

In return, the MPA graduates will provide hands-on economic development and capacity building assistance in those communities for a two-year period.

The program is modeled on the N.C. Teaching Fellows Program in which recipients teach in the state to repay their scholarship support.

“Many small towns are really in a difficult situation,” said Dr. Marvin Hoffman, a professor in Appalachian’s Department of Government and Justice Studies. Hoffman is director of the university’s MPA program, a position he has held for 18 years.

“There are more OSHA regulations to monitor, state audit requirements and increased public participation in government,” Hoffman said. Many small towns also are struggling with the downturn in the local and national economy as well as localized problems, such as the need for increased water and sewer capacity to attract new industry.

“This project will provide students with the financial support they need to get a good education, and they will receive practical training in finding solutions to these problems through grant writing and management,” Hoffman said.

Second-year MPA students Amanda Reid from Franklin County and Tyler Beardsley from Raleigh are Appalachian’s participants in the pilot project.

Reid became interested in urban planning and development after helping her mother, who was director of planning in Vance County. After earning her bachelor’s degree in community and regional planning at Appalachian, Reid entered the university’s MPA program. “My interests were still in planning; however, I was interested in seeing the different facets of local government. The program at Appalachian has allowed me to do that,” she said.

Reid applied for the N.C. Local Government Service Corps because of the opportunities it will provide her as well as the community she will serve.

“I am from rural North Carolina. The opportunity to serve rural areas appeals to me because I can relate to the area, people and concerns,” she said. “North Carolina currently has 220 communities with no professional management. The service corps program, if continued, has the opportunity to assist many of these communities. We have the opportunity to define goals with community members and work hard to reach them.”

Beardsley also has an undergraduate degree in community and regional planning from Appalachian. He has always been interested in working in government. “I feel like it’s a good way to give back to the community,” he said of his intended career.

“Participating in the service corps project is a good way to get valuable experience,” Beardsley said. Planners in larger cities send to work in specialized areas, but those in smaller towns or communities are exposed to a range of needs. “You have to do everything in a small town and you really get to see everything a town does,” he said. “From what I have learned at Appalachian, I’ll be able to communicate with the board and community citizens about setting policies and organizing government in a way that will benefit them the most.”

Communities have been invited to file applications to participate in the pilot program and identify needs and projects that they would like the students to address their communities were chosen. Assignments will be made in March and the MPA graduates will begin work in August.

“These communities are getting a lot of talent that they would not be able to afford otherwise,” Hoffmann said. “The service corps fellows will receive additional training beyond what they typically would have gotten in the MPA program, and the grant will support their participation in several short courses offered by agencies, such as the N.C. School of Government and the Urban Land Institute,” he said.

As part of the service corps grant, the students will have an enhanced internship this summer with a local government manager who will be their mentor. “MPA students at Appalachian are very fortunate to have a strong network of supportive alumni,” Reid said. “We interact with them at annual conferences and are encouraged to contact them with questions and concerns. The majority of our internships are with our alumni as well.”

Appalachian has close to 120 city and county managers and their assistants across the state, Hoffman said. “Four of these managers will be chosen as mentors to give real world problem solving advice to these students when they begin their two years in the field,” he said.

The project will be evaluated at the end of three years to determine if the program will continue.

“The outcome is easily worth what is being invested,” Hoffman said. “These students have been trained in strategic visioning and community leadership. They will work with local elected officials and the business community, develop a sense of what needs to be done and the order in which those things need to be done, from how to make the town or county more attractive in the sense of aesthetics or economic development to preventing young people from leaving the area to work elsewhere.”