Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer
Since 2007, North Carolina has used a three-level system for designating county development tiers. The designations, which are mandated by state law, determine a variety of state funding opportunities to assist in economic development. The North Carolina Department of Commerce annually ranks the state’s 100 counties based on economic well-being and assigns each a Tier designation.
Macon County’s Tier Designation improved from Tier 2 to Tier 3 — meaning Macon County’s economy is among the best in the state. The county’s economic distress rank is #84 (it was #72 in 2020). Compared to last year, the county’s population growth rank, median household income rank, and unemployment rate rank all improved.
There are only 20 Tier 3 counties in the state. Macon County is the only county in the westernmost portions of the state to be recognized as a Tier 3 county. Further east, the next Tier 3 counties are Transylvania, Henderson, and Polk with the remaining counties in the eastern portion of the state.
The 40 most distressed counties are designated as Tier 1, the next 40 as Tier 2 and the 20 least distressed as Tier 3. County Tiers are calculated using four factors:
• Average unemployment rate
• Median household income
• Percentage growth in population
• Adjusted property tax base per capita
Beginning with the 2019 rankings, only these four factors determine final Tier rank. In previous years, additional adjustment factors were also considered in the calculations. In 2018, the North Carolina General Assembly eliminated these adjustment factors from the Tier ranking methodology
A total of 22 counties in North Carolina will see a change in tier designation in 2021. Along with Macon County, Beaufort, Camden, Carteret, Chowan, Jones, Onslow, Perquimans, Pitt, Polk and Transylvania improved their tier designation. Alexander, Brunswick, Buncombe, Burke, Cherokee, Davie, Haywood, Hoke, New Hanover, Randolph, and Rowan Counties saw their tier designation change to a more distressed tier.
Macon County Economic Development Director Tommy Jenkins explained to commissioners that the change in ranking is positive, as it indicates that the county’s economy is improving over the previous years, however it can present challenges as some funding opportunities will no longer be available. Certain state programs and funding opportunities are only available to Tier 1 and 2 counties, meaning Macon County’s shift to Tier 3 could affect its participation in some current or future programs.
“Funding opportunities like the building reuse grants which we have seen make a big difference in Macon will no longer be available,” said Jenkins. “So while it is good to be considered amongst the top economically well-off counties, it presents some challenges as well.”
The Macon County public school system will also likely be affected by the change in the county’s tier ranking. Macon County Commissioner Gary Shields noted that the county will likely lose access to many grants and other state programs that are limited to school systems in Tiers 1 and 2.
In addition to economic development and school system impacts Commissioner Ronnie Beale said Social Services and other areas could also be affected by the change.