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Economic Development

FEATURE – RURAL DEVELOPMENT: Legislature to address fact that 71% of state’s population has migrated to only seven counties

Category: Economic Development

By Lou Phelps, Coastal Empire News

January 3, 2018 – During the months each year that the Georgia General Assembly is not in session, a number of study committees of House and Senate representatives meet, learn and listen to experts and citizens on various topics that often lead to legislation in the following year. 

Prior to the 2018 session getting underway, the committees issue their final reports.  One of those committees in 2017 has begun a study of what to do about the lack of population growth outside of the Atlanta and Savannah metro areas.  In fact, many of the counties in Georgia are losing population.

The House of Representatives Rural Development Council held eight sessions over the past seven months, kicking off back on May 22 in Tifton. At the opening of the first meeting, Speaker of the House David Ralston addressed the bipartisan council, calling them “the state’s trustees” for finding solutions to move the entire state forward.  

In what he termed ‘an intense study of the issues and the formulation of tangible solutions to enhance the symbiotic relationship between the state’s rural and urban areas’, Ralston noted that as the largest state east of the Mississippi with a population over 10 million people and growing, “our successes in economic activity to date have been a highly coordinated, deliberate effort, and that coordination must now amplify its reach to all portions of this state regardless of zip code.”

“To frame the current challenges facing rural parts of the state”, the members heard presentations from academics and professionals, including by Matt Hauer, from the Carl Vinson Institute of Government, who detailed census data that highlighted the flow of people to urban centers, not only in Georgia but across the entire nation.

Large states, such as North Dakota, Florida, California, New York, Arizona and Texas are facing similar rural “demographic headwinds” that reflect an aging population outpacing the birth rate, which is also not being replenished by people moving in to these communities.

Thirty-six of Georgia’s counties have a higher death rate than birth rate at this time, and they are all classified as “rural.” Georgia’s population also reflects the national reverse of “The Great Migration.” While the state’s population has doubled over 40 years, two-thirds of this growth is concentrated in seven Georgia metro counties, primarily near Atlanta and Savannah. Migration of indigent Georgians shows an overwhelming 71% relocating to urban centers, 23% moving out of state and only 7% choosing a rural relocation.

And, that 7% relocating to rural regions are having a minimal impact on the exodus, as 80 of the 159 counties – half – have lost population since 2000 to the present, according to Hauer.  There are 11 of Georgia’s rural counties that had a lower population in 2010 than was counted in 1860 at the start of the Civil War.

While the loss of workforce to sustain a community may seem intuitively negative on growth, the council also heard testimony that there can be a net positive despite declines if the income levels increase with those who do relocate to rural areas. Rural Georgia currently accounts for $71 million in annual income, according to Sharon Kane from the Center of Agribusiness and Economic Development. She explained that median household earnings in rural areas across the nation are distinctly lower at $56,102 in non-metro versus $97,886 for the overall average. This lower income is reflected in the southern United States more than anywhere else in the nation with a 21.7% poverty rate that is 6% higher in acuity in rural areas. Moreover, the civilian workforce, still significantly discouraged from fulltime employment following the recession, is slightly less engaged in non-metro areas (53% employed) than metro centers (63% employed).

As farming and agriculture production are leading income generators for rural Georgia, employing 223,000 people in South Georgia alone, it was noted that a stimulus resulting in a 10% increase in the chain of economy created through farm, fish, forestry and agricultural services would have an estimated $2.457 billion impact through added jobs, income and overall value-added benefits state-wide, the council members were told.

The last of the eight sessions was held Nov. 29 in Warm Springs, where “Employment Enhancement Premiums” were discussed.   President & CEO at Premium Peanut, LLC  in Douglas, GA, Karl Zimmer, shared some of his company’s experiences building a company in South Georgia.

Premium Peanut started as a collaborative effort of local businessmen and farmers who wanted to create a value-added pipeline for their products that improved profitability and access to the market. Over a quick 15-month start-up, the company went from being an idea to operating with over $75 million in revenue and more than 350 stockholders in 30 Georgia counties; however, there were significant challenges that the community overcame through forging partnerships to become the single largest peanut sheller in the world that now handles 15 to 20 percent of the nation’s peanut crop and will pay dividends in early 2018.

A big challenge for the company was infrastructure, which if the company was built in the metro Atlanta region would have already been there. So, while state programs are appreciated, it should also be remembered that there are unique challenges to rural areas, he explained.

The company’s biggest expense is moving the product from the buying point to the shelling location, and often the roads are not big enough, wide enough, paved or go easily to the right places. Rail, sewer and water are also an issue, and expansions may not be in South Georgia unless there is easy access to customers, highways and ports.

In addition, tax incentives, which are based where the company is located, should take into account any revenue-sharing or regional impact of the value across the entire enterprise, which is much bigger and growing for Premium Peanut. Seasonal labor shortages are also difficult to work through; there is little incentive to work for six weeks during harvest at a buying point, so a lack of manpower creates gaps in productivity. In addition to seasonal labor, qualified labor is an issue. The company held a job fair and 500 people attended, but less than 50 qualified because of a lack of education, drug use, or a general lack of interest in work.

In both scenarios, he noted that there seems to be little incentive to move from public assistance to work.

Ralston and other legislative leaders are working on a plan to provide financial incentives to workers who will relocate to rural areas, with legislation now be filed.

The members of the House's Council are: 

Council Members:                           

Rep. Terry England, Co-Chairman                              

Rep. Jay Powell, Co-Chairman                     

Rep. Sam Watson, Vice-Chair           Ex-Officio Members:     

Rep. Patty Bentley                           Rep. Brooks Coleman    

Rep. John Corbett                           Rep. Sharon Cooper       

Rep. Matt Hatchett                          Rep. Robert Dickey         

Rep. Mack Jackson                          Rep. Penny Houston      

Rep. Dominic LaRiccia                     Rep. Rick Jasperse          

Rep. Eddie Lumsden                       Rep. Tom McCall              

Rep. Chad Nimmer                          Rep. Butch Parrish          

Rep. Clay Pirkle                               Rep. Don Parsons            

Rep. Terry Rogers                           Rep. Jason Shaw              

Rep. Ed Rynders                              Rep. Ron Stephens         

Rep. Darlene Taylor                         Rep. Kevin Tanner           

Rep. Bill Werkheiser

The final report of the committee can be found at http://www.house.ga.gov/Documents/CommitteeDocuments/2017/HouseRuralDevelopmentCouncil/Highlights_Appendix_B.PDF

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