Georgia Has Rural Prosperity on Its Mind


Across the United States, the topic of rural prosperity is an emotionally charged debate, as rural communities often feel left behind in the urban-rural economic divide.

Though the issues are complex, and each town is unique, rural communities share similar challenges including loss of population, insufficient access to healthcare, limited educational resources, inadequate infrastructure (broadband connectivity), slow job growth, and an expanding level of poverty.

With 159 counties in Georgia, approximately 88 percent are considered rural; and 26 percent of Georgians live outside urban areas.

Identifying the Issues

In 2015, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce embarked on a multi-year initiative to examine prosperity across the state. After extensive research, the Chamber launched a series of programs to inform and encourage community leaders that a rural revival is paramount in securing future growth.

In the U.S, approximately 20 percent of rural counties are losing population; however, in Georgia, more than 50 percent of the state’s counties are predicted to lose people by 2030.

“Rural Georgia is losing its population and workforce to more expanding cities of the state,” say Georgia Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Clark. “This pushes the rural parts of the state into a crisis.”

In addition to the predicted loss in population, research indicates that 53 percent of Georgia counties are categorized as “distressed,” while nationally that figure stands at 20 percent.

“This was a clarion call that there is a disconnect within a state where the economy is doing very well in the metro and coastal areas, but rural areas have not caught on and fully recovered after the last recession,” says Clark.

In 2017, the Chamber opened the Center for Rural Prosperity in Tifton and established the Rural Prosperity Council, which was charged with identifying unique challenges and defining innovative solutions that negatively impact rural communities.

“One of the things I have wanted to do for a while is open a Chamber office in South Georgia,” says Clark. “As a statewide business group, it’s hard for us to understand what all of our members need if we are only located in Atlanta.”

The Rural Prosperity Council identified several challenges including talent development and retention, healthcare fundamentals, business and job growth, education, and poverty.

With an estimated 85 counties in Georgia projected to lose jobs by 2030, Clark says communities need a strategy for talent development, recruitment, and retention.

“At the end of the day businesses can go anywhere in the world,” says Clark. “It’s not about finding a great industrial park or building; it’s about finding access to talent.”

On a positive note, the tide is beginning to turn in the area of economic development in Georgia’s rural communities. According to the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD) in FY18, 80 percent of the state’s economic development projects were located outside of metro Atlanta.

“I do feel we are starting to see positive results,” says Clark. “There is a pick-up in rural Georgia with economic announcements. I think this is a testament to (GDEcD) Commissioner Pat Wilson and his team’s commitment to rural Georgia.”

An educated and highly trained workforce is a prerequisite for prosperity and economic mobility. By 2030, the Chamber has projected 1.4 million job openings, with approximately one million in response to retiring baby boomers. The other 400,000 jobs are expected to be new positions added to the market.

Clarks says rural communities need to be prepared to fill positions vacated through new job creation and retirement.

Currently, Georgia ranks 45 out of 50 states in rural graduation rates, and 40 percent of rural Georgia adults are not working.

“Students in school today need to be trained for jobs that might not even exist,” says Clark. “Community leaders need a strategy in place for educating their own and having a plan to attract millennials to their community.”

With approximately 16 percent of Georgians living below the poverty line, the Chamber is focused on working with community leaders to develop solutions for the underserved population.

“The Chamber’s focus on rural prosperity is not a one-time deal,” says Clark. “We are committed to rural Georgia for the rest of the life of the Georgia Chamber. This is a long-term commitment to partner with our members throughout the state.”

A Hub for Rural Issue

Dr. David Bridges, President of ABAC. Photo contributed by ABAC

With the passage of House Bill 951 during the 2018 legislative session, the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation was established and located on the campus of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College (ABAC) in Tifton.

“Less of a think tank and more of a workhorse,” is how ABAC President David Bridges describes the Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation, which is also referred to as Georgia’s Rural Center.

“The center came about because of conversations focused on the realization that population in Georgia’s rural communities is declining,” says Bridges, who serves as the center’s interim director. “It finally reached the tone that it’s only going to get worse if something isn’t done now.”

Having grown up on a farm in the small town of Parrott, located in Terrell County, Bridges has a passion for agriculture and rural issues.

“I have spent a lot of time in rural communities, and it doesn’t take a lot to figure out what we’ve been doing isn’t working,” says Bridges, who has served as president of ABAC since 2006.

Bridges attributes part of the decline of rural communities to the lack of strategy, coordination, and leadership.

“Most rural communities don’t have a plan, and they aren’t aware of what help is available,” says Bridges. “They need a way to coordinate all the resources currently available. When you are a small community that is struggling and has been declining for years, maybe even reached a state of desperation, you need to know who can help and what kind of help they can give.”

The center’s primary mission is to serve as a central information and research hub for rural best practices.

“I am very outcome-oriented,” says Bridges. “We are going to identify projects that have viability, then determine the missing links. What do they need to get over the hump?”

Areas of focus may include community planning, industry-specific assistance, and cooperative efforts with non-profits, religious organizations, and other higher education partners.

“Helping rural communities manage projects is essential to their growth,” says Bridges. “Someone has to keep the project going. The center will also be able to provide resources through students and faculty members. If the project is big enough, we might be able hire some assistance.”

According to Scott Blount, associate director of Georgia’s Rural Center, one of the center’s primary initiatives is ABAC Connect, a career services management system that will match employees with ABAC students who are seeking internships and employment opportunities.

“We want to make sure our students are aware of the opportunities that exist in rural communities in this state,” says Blount. “Through the work of the center and the experiential learning opportunities of the internships, we hope to instill in them an affinity for rural Georgia and the benefits of living in rural communities as they move forward in their career and lives.”

Currently the internship program is only open to ABAC students; however, the goal is to make ABAC Connect available to college students throughout Georgia.

“We are creating a situation that connects employers in rural communities with students who want an opportunity to gain work experience,” says Bridges. “In the short-term, we help students gain valuable work experience, but the long-term goal is creating an opportunity for future full-time employment.”

With the projected loss of population and workforce in rural Georgia, Bridges says connecting students to internships leads to a higher possibility that they will secure full-time employment and remain in rural communities.

In addition to developing the internship program, the center has completed several research projects including an economic impact analysis for Harrison Poultry, located in Barrow County.

Information from the study was used by Harrison Poultry’s leadership to secure $19.4 million in cost savings and cost avoidances for expansion in Barrow and Taliaferro counties.

With the dual-county expansions, Harrison Poultry is expected to create 260 jobs and add $72 million of capital investments in Taliaferro County, one of the state’s least populous counties.

“By opening a new facility in nearby Taliaferro County there is an immediate increase in new jobs,” says Bridges. “Barrow County also wins because by moving part of its operation to Taliaferro, it opens up the availability for a second shift, which means they will hire more people.”

As part of its mission to partner with other higher education institutions and state agencies, Georgia’s Rural Center sponsored an Ag Summit on the campus of Middle Georgia State University.  A collaborative effort with ABAC, University of Georgia, and Fort Valley State University, the summit facilitated discussion regarding issues of importance to Georgia’s agricultural industry.

The summit also featured keynote speakers representing the agriculture industry including Commissioner Gary Black, Georgia Department of Agriculture, and Zippy Duvall, president of American Farm Bureau Federation.

Amy Carter, Deputy Commissioner of the Georgia Rural Initiative

Shoring Up Economic Support

To further shore up rural economic prosperity, House Bill 951 also created the Georgia Rural Initiative, a division within the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD). The new division includes Amy Carter, deputy commissioner; Chris Chammoun, division director, and Taylor Walden, project manager.

The Georgia Rural Initiative was established to help rural communities become more competitive for economic development projects and identify new strategies for attracting jobs and investments.

During its first year, the rural initiative team has visited more than half of Georgia’s 159 counties and facilitated roundtable discussions with community leaders and stakeholders.

“Although our focus is rural counties, we intend to have a community meeting in every county,” says Carter. “There are ‘rural parts’ in each county, including some of those in metro areas.”

Carter says the discussions have been informative, and though each community has its own sets of issues, the rural initiative division has identified five areas of mutual concern: workforce development, leadership, housing, healthcare, and infrastructure.

“In my opinion workforce, leadership, and infrastructure continue to emerge as top priorities,” says Carter. “The brain drain is a big problem. Kids are leaving their rural hometowns and not returning to live and work; and of course, soft skills and work ethics continue to be an issue.”

While there are various programs within communities and across the state to prepare future leaders, Carter says current community leaders need to be united. “City and county leaders, internal leadership, they all must be on the same page and work as a team to see economic development success.”

With a depleting population comes a dwindling tax base, which makes it difficult for small communities to maintain or build new infrastructure including water, sewer, and roads.

“Many companies are interested in setting up shop as quickly as possible,” says Carter. “If a county or community doesn’t have an inventory—infrastructure, industrial parks, and spec buildings—then they are not going to be considered for new industries. Strategic long-range planning is essential for economic development to grow.”

Carter says building a robust economic base requires a team effort. “The GDEcD Global Commerce regional project managers are our key partners, and they have taken us into each of their counties to meet with community stakeholders. These project managers are bringing jobs, and we work alongside them to help address any challenges along the way.”

With more roads to travel, Carter says the rural initiative team continues to find new ways to connect private and public agencies to develop viable solutions.

“Through these discussions, we have found many projects to collaborate further, and even troubleshoot at the local, state, and federal levels. We look for ways to promote these rural communities with GDEcD’s divisions,” says Carter referencing Global Commerce; Tourism; International Trade; Film, Music and Digital Entertainment; International Relations, the Georgia Council for the Arts and the Centers of Innovations. “We also share the successes we hear during our travels from one county to another.”

Saralyn Strafford, rural development manager with UGA Public Service and Outreach

Providing Programs and Resources

The University of Georgia (UGA) strengthened its economic efforts in rural communities with the addition of Saralyn Stafford as a rural development manager. Based in Coffee County, Stafford is part of UGA’s Public Service Outreach division, which includes the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, the Small Business Development Center, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant, the Archway Partnership, the Center for Continuing Education and Hotel, the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, and the Office of Service-Learning.

UGA’s Public Service and Outreach develops programs and provides resources to create jobs, develop leaders, and address critical challenges that impede economic growth within communities throughout the state.

With more than 30 years of economic development experience, Stafford previously served in leadership roles with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs and chamber management in Waycross, Blackshear, and Douglas. She was instrumental in the creation and management of the Georgia Academy for Economic Development and continues to serve as a board member.

Stafford started her position with UGA on July 1, 2018, and is responsible for serving as a liaison to local elected officials, chambers of commerce, economic development professionals, school boards, nonprofits, small business owners, and other community leaders in rural South Georgia.

“With all the services UGA offers, I don’t think every community is aware they are available,” says Stafford. “I am working to connect these services and resources UGA has to offer to rural communities.”

Having worked with the Department of Community Affairs, Stafford has her pulse on many issues and challenges facing rural communities.

“What I am doing now is working specifically with rural communities to address their unique and critical issues,” says Stafford, who is a graduate of the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Organizational Management. “I’ve been doing rural economic development for my entire adult career, and the best part of this job is connecting leaders with the resources UGA has to offer.”

Stafford has spent a good portion of her time working with colleagues to help deal with the economic aftermath of Hurricane Michael, which decimated parts of Southwest Georgia last year. With an estimated $2 billion in agricultural loss in Georgia, Stafford worked to focus attention on connecting farmers and agribusinesses with disaster relief assistance.

As part of the hurricane recovery effort, Stafford coordinated a Resource Recovery Fair in Bainbridge and Tifton at the annual Ag Forecast Summits, which were hosted by UGA’s Extension Service. The informational fairs featured representatives from UGA, Georgia Department of Agriculture, and other related partners including the Heirs Property Center, a nonprofit agency that assists in settling title issues.

“Title issues are important in hurricane recovery efforts because neither federal aid nor insurance can be awarded if there is not a clear title,” says Stafford. “In many rural communities, and probably urban as well, the heirs to a jointly owned property—a house or timber or pecan plantation—may never go through the proper procedures, as they are operating or sharing the property with family members, and don’t feel it is a priority to do this.”

The Resource Recovery Fair also included representatives from the Georgia Forestry Service, which offered grant funds for clearing downed timber and pecans so that replanting could start as quickly as possible.

With tourism representing a $66.2 billion economic impact in Georgia, Stafford also collaborated with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to develop the state’s first Coastal Sustainable Tourism Conference.

The conference, which took place in Savannah on April 12, was focused on developing innovative ways to provide jobs and promote tourism in coastal communities while conserving the natural resources and cultural heritage of the coast.

“I’ve also continued training on economic development for elected officials and development authority board members,” says Stafford, “and working with my colleagues at UGA in Athens and out in the South Georgia communities on issues and needs in rural Georgia.”

Darrell Moore, executive director of VSU’s Center for South Georgia Regional Impact. Photo by Paul Leavy

Impacting Regional Growth

With a mission to support regional growth, Valdosta State University opened the Center for South Georgia Regional Impact to promote partnerships and provide resources within the university’s 41-county service area.

As the center’s executive director, Darrell Moore works with community leaders to identify projects that connect the expertise of Valdosta State faculty, staff, and students in the fields of economic development, education, healthcare, the arts, and governmental effectiveness.

Moore, who previously served as president of the Moultrie-Colquitt County Development Authority for 21 years, is familiar with the South Georgia region and was instrumental in recruiting a medical school and agricultural processing facilities to the area.

“I know a lot of people in this region, and have worked with them on economic development projects in the past,” says Moore, who helped established Locate South Georgia, a regional economic partnership to recruit new industries and support existing companies. “What I am doing now is finding out what these communities need and then match those needs with resources at Valdosta State.”

The center was established as part of Valdosta State’s 2018 strategic plan, which has a stated objective to increase student success and opportunities for experiences outside the classroom, as well as the development of resources in the region.

With more than 40 completed and ongoing projects, Moore says Valdosta State faculty, staff, and students are making a difference in many small communities throughout South Georgia.

“We had a project where students helped update a county’s human resource policy manual,” says Moore. “Other projects include website design, marketing, and grant writing.”

Moore explained that some of the projects are established as internships, while others are research-based and require a team of students and faculty.

“Students are getting hands-on experience in identifying solutions, for example designing a website,” says Moore, explaining that a website is an essential economic development tool for local governments. “Often small communities can’t afford the cost of developing a website, and they might not have an employee with those skills.”

After meeting with community leaders and assessing their needs, Moore pulls the university’s resource team together to develop a plan of action.

“Our main goal is to identify student learning opportunities that also meet a community’s need,” says Moore. “We have students here from all 41 counties in our region, so we also want to find ways for them to help in their hometowns.”

Moore says project assistance and internships are not limited to local governments but are also available to nonprofits and businesses.

Chloe Taylor, senior at Valdosta State University gained valuable public relations experience through an internship at Gayla’s Grits in Lakeland. Photo by Jake Parris

“The goal is to help students make connections within communities,” says Moore. “Hopefully, by working here, they will want to stay in South Georgia when they graduate.”

Not wanting to duplicate services, Moore says there is a lot of local, state, and federal resources available. “For example, if we get a request to help write a business plan, then I am going to connect them to the Small Business Development Center here at Valdosta State.”

With the 2020 Census quickly approaching, Moore is attending Complete Count Committee meetings and reaching out to communities to offer Valdosta State’s assistance.

“The census has a major economic impact, especially in rural areas,” says Moore. “By not counting even 100 people, communities can lose millions of dollars in federal funds.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, funding for hospitals, fire departments, schools, roads, and highways are determined based on the census count. Mandated by the Constitution, the United States conducts a census every 10 years, and the outcome determines out approximately $675 billion in federal funding is allocated to states and communities.

As a result of the 2010 Census, 9,687,653 people were counted in Georgia, which provided the state with $15.88 billion. According to the Georgia Municipal Association, each person counted in the 2010 Census effectively brought $1,639.10 to the state.

“Making sure city and county leaders fully understand the financial impact of the census is the priority,” says Moore. “We are recruiting assistance from our students. I am familiar with a lot of these communities, but not all of them, so this is where the students can help.”

While U.S. Census Bureau workers conduct the official count, Moore explains that Valdosta State students can make a significant impact in their hometown by identifying pockets of people that might not have been counted in 2010.

“Having the local knowledge will help us develop a plan so that everyone is counted,” says Moore. “Through the center, we are also developing billboards and PSAs (public service announcements), as well as individualized marketing materials like posters and table tents for counties to distribute.”

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