Culminating nearly two years of research and focus on issues plaguing the non-metro areas of Georgia, the Georgia House passed HB 951, sponsored by Rep. Jason Shaw (R-Lakeland), establishing a Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation.
In the words of the Old Knight congratulating Indiana Jones on selecting the correct holy grail, they “chose wisely” in passing Shaw’s bill.
Shaw’s bill finds its roots in the work carried out by the House Rural Development Council during the summer and fall of 2017, which held hearings throughout the state and had the strong backing of house leadership. The idea was to reach out and learn firsthand the challenges faced by all rural Georgia, not just those confined to particular geographic pockets.
They traveled. They met. They talked. They synthesized the information they gathered. And Shaw’s bill, now pending in the state senate, proposes reforming existing state resources to address those needs. It represents solid, conservative legislation.
It creates a Deputy Commissioner for rural Georgia, a position to be held by former State Representative Amy Carter, to coordinate rural initiatives within the Georgia Department of Economic Development. This position will work closely with the CRPI, acting as a traffic cop directing existing resources and programs to those rural areas where development opportunities arise or can be created.
And this is smart.
Faced with a situation where the rural Georgia areas incarcerated more people than, say, Gwinnett County, something had to be done. Not only that but many of these counties experience no population growth or are actually losing population.
Shaw hit the nail on the head in 2017 when he said that not only South Georgia but “rural Georgia needs jobs”. Incentivizing industrial investors and developers to locate there is essential since a working population tends to be more educated, pays more in taxes, consumes less in social services, and stays out of jail.
The CRPI, together with the deputy commissioner for rural affairs, will ensure that development opportunities are directed, where appropriate, to rural Georgia and, just as importantly, opportunities are sought out and created for these underdeveloped areas.
As Shaw observed, HB 951 puts corrective lenses on the sometimes myopic economic development vision of the DED thus allowing it to see beyond Bobby Dodd Stadium and the ribbons of interstates running through and around Atlanta metro.
In its current form HB 951 envisions installing the CRPI at a unit of the University System of Georgia that awards a bachelor of science degree in rural community development. While this is logical thinking, it hamstrings the location possibilities for the Center, to one, maybe two such institutions in the state, and only one being located in rural Georgia, Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.
That ABAC is one of the nation’s premier agricultural research and natural resource management colleges is beyond question. Moreover, its recent merger with Bainbridge State College allows it to enhance and expand that reputation and role. And while ABAC’s credentials certainly qualify it as a venue for the CRPI, it might be unwise to conduct that consideration in a vacuum.
Another consideration might include Valdosta State University, an 11,000 student regional and comprehensive university in the system as well. Aside from its multi-disciplined graduate programs, VSU show cases five colleges: Arts and Sciences, the Arts, Business Administration, Education and Human Services, and Nursing and Health Sciences.
The VSU campus, then, already supports the vast array of research resources the CRPI will require, dispensing with any need to re-invent the wheel or risk over-tasking other institutions.
While the CRPI venue is no holy grail, it still should be “chosen wisely”.
Gary M. Wisenbaker (email@example.com) is a corporate communications and political consultant at Blackstone, LLC