The Rural Edge: Wilson, North Carolina

At CORI, we have a saying: once you’ve seen one rural community, you’ve seen one rural community. America’s small towns are diverse and dynamic, and through our work with our Rural Innovation Network, we have the privilege of working in depth with 18 communities building digital economy ecosystems. To highlight these incredible places, Siegel Family Endowment and the Walmart Foundation provided funding for us to create video case studies highlighting our communities’ efforts. The second installment in this series is Wilson, North Carolina. You can watch the video here.

The Rural Edge: Wilson, North Carolina

40 miles east of Raleigh sits rural Wilson, North Carolina, a burgeoning town of 50,000 that’s carving a clear path into this century’s economy. 

For decades, Wilson was an agricultural powerhouse, and as the economy grew more industrialized, Wilson followed, growing a diversified manufacturing economy in cutting edge industries and embracing the boom of the nearby Research Triangle. It was even one of the first cities in America to have an electrical grid.

As the turn of this century hit, local leaders recognized that they needed the new infrastructure required to fully support the community in a rapidly changing economy: high-speed broadband. In 2007, the city of Wilson began building Greenlight Community Broadband, an effort that brought fiber-to-the-home to every resident and business in the city.

Greenlight was one of the first municipal networks of its kind, and it has become a model for small towns seeking to build future-proof infrastructure needed for modern life and work. Wilson is already seeing the payoff of that work, as the town is growing a dynamic digital and entrepreneurial ecosystem that sustainably supports its people and place. 

Building on this groundbreaking fiber infrastructure, Wilson launched Gig East, Wilson’s centralized hub for the local tech economy and its connection to the broader Research Triangle ecosystem. The Gig East Exchange, located in the heart of Wilson’s downtown, is becoming home to the region’s entrepreneurs. According to Kellianne Davis, Downtown Business Specialist for the City of Wilson, NC, Gig East Exchange was designed as a “loud message” to innovators that “you don’t have to go elsewhere; if you’re carving a path here, we can support you in doing that and will wrap the resources around you to make sure it will happen.” 

You can already feel the results. The RioT Accelerator program hosted an entrepreneur cohort in Wilson; one of the participants, Shyft Auto, is setting up HQ in the Exchange and is primed to grow. And local entrepreneurs like Brian Goodwin, a Wilson transplant who runs his own video project studio called B.RIVETed Entertainment, are benefitting from all the energy invested in entrepreneurial efforts and proving that high-tech success can happen there. 

As Will Aycock, the general manager of Greenlight, shared, the effort to make Wilson an inclusive tech “is not about people not leaving; it’s about people not having to leave.” By building world-class infrastructure needed for digital work and communications—and then taking the steps needed to translate that into real life success—Wilson is forgint its path to rural innovation. 

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