“I’ve been to all these counties. I’ve been involved in businesses in rural communities. I have a different perspective in some ways,” said Kemp, a former secretary of state and Athens businessman who won a narrow race for governor fueled by huge support from rural areas.
“It’s the area that needs the help. Our focus won’t shift off the metro Atlanta area. But we need a new focus on other parts of the state. It’s not to say there wasn’t a focus before, but it needs to be tweaked.”
Kemp is launching the initiative as more sweeping plans to aid rural Georgia stall in the Legislature. Efforts to finance broadband connections, expand rural transit and give tax incentives to professionals to move to rural towns have failed to gain traction the last few years.
Some scaled-back measures have become law, including proposals that allow local electricity cooperatives to sell online services, clear the way for "micro-hospitals" and provide new tax credits for short-line railroads that could benefit sparsely-populated areas.
Meanwhile, rural Georgia's struggles are mounting. More than one-third of Georgia's small towns lost population over the past year, according to new estimates from the U.S. Census bureau, while Atlanta and other large cities have grown bigger.
And the Georgia Chamber of Commerce estimates that 74 counties will either lose population or stall at zero percent growth by 2030.
Kemp said the state economic development department will form the strike team by "retooling and refocusing" existing staffers, though it wasn't immediately clear how large the team would be. The staffers will also help counties piece together sprawling sites such as Stanton Springs, a mega-development of 1,600 acres that spans four counties.
“I’d love to see a big project go into a part of our state where no one thought it was possible to go, and have the effect that Kia had on West Point,” he said of the car manufacturer. “Or maybe it’s two or three different deals that aren’t as big as Kia but still have a huge impact.”
The governor, who recently ordered budget cuts to prepare for leaner economic times, said he was worried that talk of a souring fiscal climate could do lasting damage to Georgia’s psyche.
“I feel like some people are trying to talk ourselves into a recession,” he said. “We need to be talking about the great opportunities in rural Georgia and be proactive. We need to create our own luck.”