Rural Development: Focus in Toccoa-Stephens County and Across Georgia

By: Julie Paysen

Last June Toccoa-Stephens had the privilege to be chosen by the House Rural Development Council to host one of eleven meetings throughout rural Georgia to inquire of the challenges faced by rural counties and how they can be part of the solution to help rural Georgia thrive and grow. In addition to meeting in Toccoa, they also spoke with leaders in Tifton, Thomasville, Bainbridge, Ellijay, Dalton, Metter, Waycross, Albany, Warm Springs and Milledgeville. The Council was lead by Rep. Terry England and Rep. Jay Powell.

In addition to a warm welcome to our community given by then Mayor Jeanette Jamieson, County Commissioner Dean Scarborough and myself, we each had the opportunity to share with the Council, highlighting the success of Toccoa and Stephens County in attracting new jobs but also the challenges faced by the community, including having a sufficient qualified workforce and adequate housing to attract new workers.” As quoted from the official notes from the meeting “The problem isn’t the availability of jobs, but the willingness of qualified workers to take the open positions. These challenges were echoed by other local presenters throughout the meeting.”

Furthermore, “Pat Wilson, Georgia Department of Economic Development Commissioner, highlighted the presence the department has in every county in Georgia as well as the impact the department has in international markets in the promotion of Georgia businesses and products. The commissioner stated that there is “no magic bullet” to attract industry, indicating that every community has something to offer.” Commissioner Wilson also spoke highly of Toccoa-Stephens County for the progress made in recent years and the effort of local leadership to work together to get the job done. Like mindedness and collaboration goes a long way.

“Local business leaders Barry Roberts, ASI Southeast; Leon Osborne, Osborne Wood Products; and Tim Martin, Stephens County Economic Development, addressed workforce challenges faced by the area. The availability of skilled labor, lack of applicants with soft skills or the ability to pass a drug/background check, as well as limited housing and lack of public transportation were all repeatedly named as reasons for a labor shortage in the area. Local employers suggested the state could provide GED assistance, protection for companies that hire applicants with a criminal background, as well as market the positives of Georgia to bring new talent in from out of state. Other suggestions included providing incentives particularly to counties that border other states to promote education, workforce training and infrastructure.”

From the House of Representatives Rural Development Council Recommendations Overview “The success of the state’s metro areas is deeply aligned with the contributions of rural Georgia. The entire state’s well-being depends on a recognition of this relationship, as well as better communication and cooperation across county lines and regions. The economic future of rural Georgia requires us to connect our small communities so that services, educational opportunities and jobs that make up our quality of life are equally available to all of our citizens.” The following are the findings from the Council.

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GENERAL WORKFORCE – “To reverse the current population migration trend, the council proposes a “Rural Relocate and Reside” program designed to incentivize rural living, especially for professional, high wage earners through a local and state government partnership.”

BROADBAND – “Another key to attracting and retaining people to rural Georgia is broadband connectivity, which is a critical tool for the vitality of rural communities. Broadband is modern infrastructure – the “road” to anywhere or anyone in the world, and a survey of Georgians conducted by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government noted that today’s citizens overwhelmingly equate internet access with opportunities to earn a living and the quality of life.”

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT – “In addition to broadband as an absolute need toward economic prosperity, there were a large number of other economic development strategies that emerged as best practices for propelling the growth of a rural community. “Regionalism”, “partnerships” and “connectivity” that pool together resources for workforce, training, marketing, health care and infrastructure dominated conversations. To that end, smaller communities do not always have the resources to instigate these partnerships nor the leadership to execute them; the state needs a focal point with the expertise to connect smaller areas with the multitude of existing state and federal programs, execute a statewide rural strategy, and provide leadership training. The council will work to incorporate many of the suggestions made for improving economic development in existing legislation, as well as within budgeted programs.”

EDUCATION – “Because economic development is centered so heavily in the availability of a qualified workforce, educational programming must be coordinated over the course of an entire academic career. Repetitious complaints that educational systems are not able to quickly respond to needs for industry programming because of a lack of flexibility or leadership were heard. Moreover, students are leaving their smaller communities for post-secondary education and never return. The state must provide opportunities that allow rural students to stay in place, as well as make the long-term investment in leadership and soft skills training that prepares a quality workforce.”

HEALTH – “Georgia’s overall health status, health system performance and clinical care rankings are low in the nation, and because the scores are an overall average that include metro Atlanta’s relatively positive performance and delivery, it means rural rankings are likely even lower. In addition to the aging of rural Georgians, rural populations on the whole are sicker, have less or no access to prevention and services, are more likely to suffer from mental illness and chronic diseases, have higher rates of teen pregnancy, and higher mortality rates.”

“Based on testimony, as well as results from the Rural Hospital Stabilization Committee, several best practices are emerging to revamp care delivery through telehealth, care coordination models and the creation of hub-and-spoke, free-standing emergency departments where patients can receive acute care, stabilize and transfer if necessary. The council recommends a multi-layered approach to stabilizing rural, as well as other health systems.”

“The House Rural Development Council presents these recommendations to improve the social and economic vibrancy of the state’s rural communities and regions. The recommendations are interrelated and reflect the complexity of building upon our assets without hampering the many unique attributes and contributions of the state’s rural communities.”

Toccoa-Stephens County is grateful to have been included and heard by the Council as they were gathering research. We look forward to the implementation of these recommendations in the near future.

The House of Representatives Rural Development Council Recommendations Overview can be found in its entirety at: http://www.house.ga.gov/Documents/CommitteeDocuments/2017/HouseRuralDevelopmentCouncil/. A second report from the Georgia Chamber Center for Rural Prosperity: Recommendations for a Rural Renaissance can be found at www.gachamber.com/rural-georgia-home/ for reference.