Members of the newly minted state House Rural Development Council heard a litany of challenges facing the rural parts of Georgia on Monday, as local officials, economists and experts tallied the woes.
Rural Georgia is aging rapidly. It is losing population and jobs, it lacks infrastructure and it often struggles to educate its youth.
House leaders promised answers but said they won’t come quickly or easily.
“We are going to make a very concerted effort to deal with a lot of issues,” said state House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jay Powell, R-Camilla, the council’s co-chairman. “This is a two-year task.”
Monday’s opening session of the council was about identifying the challenges. On Tuesday, the panel of state lawmakers will begin to study individual issues, and eventually it will start to propose possible solutions.
Coffee County Commissioner Jimmy Kitchens said his county has seen success as local businessmen built the world’s largest peanut sheller. It proves, Kitchens said, that local communities can’t wait for anyone else to help them.
“If we need it, we go after it,” he said. “You can’t get it by sitting on your hands and waiting for someone to bring it to you.”
Still, like many rural areas, Coffee County has needs. It has no interstate. It was able to develop a four-lane highway after Wal-Mart put a distribution center there.
“We might have a lot of jobs, but our median income is still low,” he said. “We’d like to see the quality of our jobs come up.”
Matt Hauer, a demographer at the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, said rural Georgia faces a “very strong headwind.”
There are 11 counties in Georgia that had higher populations in 1860 than they had in 2010. The exodus from rural counties has a price tag, Hauer said.
“Rural Georgia is losing $71 million in income every year,” he said.
State House Speaker David Ralston said rural Georgia can’t afford to wait for the next election to find progress and solutions.
“Rural Georgia cannot wait on political seasons to come and go because they will always come and go,” the Blue Ridge Republican said at the council’s first meeting. “I refuse to allow any personal ambitions to get in the way of what we are doing.”
The House created the council this past legislative session to identify problems facing rural areas and develop solutions. In the years since the end of the Great Recession, rural areas have struggled.
Rural counties had just 22 percent of the state’s jobs in 2014, according to a 2016 Georgia State University study called “Jobs in Georgia’s Urban and Rural Regions and Counties: Changes in Distribution, Type, and Quality from 2007 to 2014.”
Authors Peter Bluestone and Mels de Zeeuw found that the Atlanta region and the state’s 13 “hub cities” saw 90 percent of all job growth from 2007 to 2014.
At its first meeting here, council members heard from leaders of rural towns and counties who acknowledged similar challenges: underperforming schools, lack of infrastructure, threatened or nonexistent health care facilities, and lack of opportunity.
Some of the problems seem to be as simple as poor bureaucratic decision making. State Rep. Jason Shaw, R-Lakeland, said Lanier County is still federally classified as urban, thanks to a decades-old inclusion in the Lowndes County Metropolitan Statistical Area. This is a county, he said, where towns have no traffic lights or grocery stores.
When the county applies for federal health care loans, for example, it gets turned down for being “urban,” Shaw said.
Other problems are more about perception and sense of self-worth. State Rep. Chad Nimmer, R-Blackshear, warned his fellow council members to mind their manners and think about their words.
“I heard someone says ‘cheap labor,’ ” Nimmer said. “That sets a negative connotation in the mind of a young child.”
Many high schools will host graduations this Friday night. Nimmer said he heard someone quip that this Friday night “is the saddest time in a small town because the best and brightest leave (after graduating) and don’t come back.”
“If my three children hear that, what is that telling them if they stay?” he said. “They’re not the best and brightest if they stay in my town?”
It’s important to understand the challenges, Nimmer said, as long as the people are treated with respect.
“We’ve got to change a lot of the existing conversation we’re having in our communities,” he said.