Golden LEAF promises unkept

Published 5:40 pm Friday, March 30, 2007

By Staff
(This editorial originally appeared in the Wilson Daily Times.)
The Golden LEAF Foundation was, essentially, Mike Easley’s baby. The foundation was created in 1999 at then-Attorney General Easley’s urging as part of the nationwide tobacco settlement.
Easley envisioned the Long-term Economic Advancement Foundation as a means of lifting tobacco-dependent rural communities out of their dependency on tobacco incomes. The Golden LEAF Foundation would create new economic infrastructure, new jobs and home-grown opportunities for rural young people.
But now even Governor Easley admits that the Golden LEAF has not exactly laid golden eggs. The foundation, headquartered in Rocky Mount, has disbursed $201 million in grants over the past seven years, but the grants have not manifestly improved life in tobacco-dependent eastern North Carolina. Rural communities are still dying, and rural counties are still losing jobs. The renaissance promised by Golden LEAF has not happened.
Easley said earlier this month that Golden LEAF should concentrate more on economic development projects.
N.C. Rep. Louis Pate of Mount Olive is glad to hear Easley’s concern. He wants to see more Golden LEAF money going to the counties that actually produced the tobacco, such as Wayne and Wilson. Wilson County ranks 26th among 82 counties receiving Golden LEAF grants, and is being shut out this year because the foundation board’s didn’t like the local requests. Thus far, Wilson County, once home to the world’s largest tobacco market, has received just 0.6 percent of Golden LEAF disbursements.
No one has accused Golden LEAF of corruption in its disbursal of grants, but the foundation does not seem to have a clear strategy for investing. Like state appropriations for local projects, the Golden LEAF grants have often funded little more than pet local projects and well-meaning proposals. Some examples from the 2005-06 fiscal year:
Worthwhile projects? Probably. But will they free rural counties from dependence on tobacco revenues? No. Research projects at Appalachian State or N.C. A&T might have residual benefits for eastern North Carolina but no immediate, direct help.
If Golden LEAF is to do what Easley promised it would do, the foundation must concentrate on long-term infrastructure improvements, job preparation, educational advances and job creation.