The summer before he graduated high school in 1963, Hasan Hanks helped build what he was certain was the future of his little town on Georgia’s southwestern edge.
The Walter F. George Lock and Dam was near completion and would soon form a 45,000-acre lake, with 650 miles of prime shoreline property, and generate enough electricity to power 58,000 homes.
“I was a kid then, but I had a vision for Fort Gaines,” Hanks, now 71, said last week.
The lake and its dam, Hanks thought, would attract industry to Clay County. It would bring jobs, and businesses and a tax base to lift up the entire community. But after college and careers in the military and education, Hanks returned to a Clay County that had found little success. In February this year, the county had an unemployment rate of 10.5 percent, highest in the state.
Now, he said, “I get so depressed. Actually, the city is worse than it was when I was growing up.”
Hanks’ story is specific to this one rural Georgia county, but most of the 124 counties officially designated as rural have similar ones. Whether it is the promise of industry that never materializes, the loss of existing factories and plants, or any of a number of other reasons, many of Georgia’s rural communities are suffering.
Today in Tifton, the newest effort from state government to identify the challenges facing rural Georgia, and potential solutions, gets under way. The House Rural Development Council will have its first meeting. Its stated goal: “Work with rural communities to find ways to encourage economic growth.”
“Georgia is a growing and prosperous state, and we are thankful for that,” House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said recently in announcing the members of the council. “But that prosperity isn’t being felt in every community across Georgia. Some of our rural areas are still struggling, and we must do everything we can to help private businesses grow jobs in every corner of our state.”
It is a lofty goal. But it is also just the latest in a long series of councils, committees and agencies tasked with assisting rural Georgia.
There’s the Georgia Developmental Authority, the Department of Community Affairs, the Georgia Rural Development Council, the Rural Communities Development Agency, the Georgia Council for Rural Housing and Development. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a Rural Development division. There is both a private Georgia Rural Health Association and a public Georgia State Office of Rural Health.
Yet, in 2014, rural counties had just 22 percent of the state’s jobs, according to a landmark 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.”
In it, 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.
The reasons are many. But a key is that urban areas were able to absorb the historical loss of manufacturing jobs by creating new service-industry positions. Rural Georgia simply lost jobs and never got them back.
There were more than 840,000 jobs in rural Georgia in 2007, but only 785,000 in 2014 — a loss of 6.9 percent. The state as a whole saw a 1 percent decline in the number of jobs in the same time period.
Bluestone, a senior research associate with the university’s Center for State and Local Finance and the Fiscal Research Center, said finding solutions would be easier if the cause of the problems wasn’t so difficult to pin down.
On the surface, the problems are many: The state’s decision not to expand Medicaid precipitated the loss of rural hospitals, Bluestone said. The state has seen eight hospitals close in the past few years. All were in rural areas. The lack of broadband internet access is another.
Automation and technology have killed manufacturing jobs as much as outsourcing and trade agreements have. Manufacturing output in the United States is actually higher than it was. There just aren’t as many humans needed to do it.
By some accounts, the lack of jobs is not the problem. It’s the lack of trained and educated workers in some cases, Bluestone said.
In Clay County, it’s both. The county no longer has its own high school. Beginning in ninth grade, students have to travel 20 miles to attend a combined Randolph-Clay High School in Cuthbert. The nearest technical college is also in Cuthbert.
The county has no railroad. There is one physician and no hospital. Broadband internet is available but with low caps on data transfer rates. Cell service is spotty. The county water and sewer infrastructure is limited. The county is not close to an interstate, although a four-lane, divided U.S. 27 runs along the eastern portion.
Trey Anderson knows more than most the economic pressures at play in Clay County and southwest Georgia. As the owner of his family’s construction company, Anderson at times is the county’s largest employer. He was also an eight-year member of the county commission.
The Great Recession was awful, Anderson said, but the federal stimulus that followed helped helped considerably. But, Anderson found out, the government giveth and then taketh away.
His company holds contracts with federal agencies for a variety of services, including maintenance, landscaping and management at sites around the region. In the past few years, Anderson said, those contracts have only been funded at about 80 percent of what they’re supposed to be.
That means “less services, less jobs. It has a cascading effect on the economy,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state passes tax laws that devastate city and county budgets. “Farmers no longer pay ad valorem taxes on equipment. Timber industry lobbied for changes on tax laws. The tax burden is being unfairly shifted to homeowners.”
But the problems in Clay County have been the same for 30 years. No transportation, no rail, no major highway. Every few years, the government comes around in one form or another and studies the region’s problems.
“Nothing seems to get traction,” Anderson said.
It is time to think differently, Anderson said.
“Get some kids from (Georgia) Tech or UGA down here to think out of the box and come up with some fresh ideas,” he said.
Clay County has potential. For starters, it has that lake.
Walter F. George Lake is home to a state park with a 60-room lodge, marina, golf course and restaurant. Lots along the lake sell for up to $200,000. There are possibilities there.
“Common consensus is that the real opportunity is hospitality,” Jim Snyder, who has served on the Clay County Commission since 2013, said.
“We have to make the atmosphere conducive to drawing people here as a destination,” he said. “That is restaurants and entertainment. We’re just not making as much progress as we could right now.”
Snyder has led efforts to allow liquor by the drink in restaurants but has yet to convince enough of his fellow commissioners to put the question to voters.
“Liquor by the drink would give incentives to restaurateurs to come in,” Snyder said. “It’s a dry county right now. If they can’t get that they probably won’t even try.”
Snyder has tried to establish a hospitality school in the county to train workers. He has a building and a potential instructor. What he doesn’t have: A tax base to fund it or a commitment of help from the state.
It’s an old problem, Libby Neves said. Neves grew up in Fort Gaines and recently retired from the state Division of Family and Children Services. State and federal service agencies are centered around larger cities of Columbus and Albany, which are more than an hour drive from Fort Gaines.
“That trickle down doesn’t really get here,” she said. “The fact is that we have people who are under-served and are physically isolated.”
Many here, she said, suffer from low-grade depression. “It’s not really obvious, because these folks are not working,” Neves said. “Some of them are not driving. They’re just kind of drifting along. And some of it could be avoided with some services.”
Clay County also has Will Harris in its corner.
Harris is the fourth-generation farmer in Bluffton, the county’s only other municipality, who is building an eco-friendly agricultural empire. Twenty-two years ago, Harris transitioned White Oak Pastures from a industrial cattle farm to a place where, he said, animals are treated with respect and allowed to behave naturally and where their sacrifices are honored in every way possible.
Harris is a one-man economic development engine.
Bluffton is a town of 100. On any given day, Harris has 137 employees. While his farm straddles Clay and Early counties, his new general store is in Bluffton. When the Methodist Church left town and turned the sanctuary over to the town, Harris took it over, made $90,000 in improvements and turned it into office and meeting space. He pays the town rent. He’s doing the same with the abandoned courthouse next door.
Now, Harris has plans to build 20-25 homes in the town to provide housing for his employees. It will be an odd site to see new construction in Bluffton. In 2015, Harris’ director of operations at the farm built a new house in Bluffton. It was the first new home built in the city since 1972.
Harris has more plans. He wants to add a chicken hatchery and a feed mill. He has plans to build a restaurant in town as well as a gas station. Those are mild aspirations for more affluent locales, perhaps, but in Bluffton, the nearest place to get gas is more than a dozen miles away.
Harris’ plans surely will help Bluffton and Clay County. It also will help White Oak Pastures. The more White Oak grows, the more people it employs, the more taxes they pay and the more the local economy grows.
“The goal is to grow Bluffton and White Oak Pastures in a mutually beneficial arrangement,” Harris said.
If agriculture has to rebuild Bluffton then that’s just fine, he said.
“This area right here has never had any economy but an agrarian economy,” he said. “We’ve never had a factory that made anything. We’ve never had a railroad track.”
But as farming industrialized, Bluffton’s population and then its importance as a trade center vanished.
“The only reason people stayed here was using up equity in houses,” he said. “There was no store. You couldn’t spend a penny in Bluffton except to buy a stamp.”
Today, people like Will Harris, Hasan Hanks, Trey Anderson, Jim Snyder and Libby Neves and others might have different opinions of where Clay County’s problems came from and how to fix them. But they’re all committed to solving them. If they can, there is hope for all of rural Georgia.
Jean Turn is White Oak’s comptroller and a former Fort Gaines librarian. She’s seen how farming and agriculture helped rural communities grow.
“Agriculture is the girl that brought us to the party and then it went away and the party was over,” Turn said. “And I think the agriculture is bringing it back.”
Many small towns “try to revitalize themselves with tourism, antique halls, gentrification, craft things, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re the only town in the United States that’s literally coming back to life through pure agriculture,” she said.
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