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Chris Clark: Rural Renaissance

I’m a child of rural Georgia. I was born and raised in Ben Hill and Irwin counties with ample time spent in Brooks and Colquitt counties. I stayed in rural environments through college at Georgia Southern and grad school at Georgia College. My first chamber job was on the banks of the Ocmulgee River in Hawkinsville.

Along the way, I’ve purposefully visited every county, state park, historic site, trout river, wild barrier island, and roadside boiled peanut stand in our great state. I love rural Georgia.

As a child, my hometown was a constant buzz of activity. I felt like Opie Taylor, riding my bike around downtown, walking with my Papa from the Grand Theater down to the coffee shop twice a day to listen to the veterans share or make up stories about the war. On weekends we’d fish the Little River or head to the lake in a little 16-foot johnboat. Almost every Saturday night was a fish fry at Aunt Mable’s and a week didn’t go by that we didn’t have a cold Coca-Cola at Uncle Jr.’s auto shop.

I learned to drive on red dirt roads, drag raced my 1972 F150 out by the town dump, and watched my friend James back his dad’s truck into the lake. At 14, I lied about my age to get a job at Radio Shack and by 16, I was reading obituaries on our local radio stations WSIZ and WBHB. We stayed busy: school, extracurricular activities, work, 4-H, Friday night football games, cruising Grant Street on the weekend, and church on Sunday morning, evening, and on Wednesdays. We were full of pride for our teams, lifestyle, and town.

Growing up in South Georgia I was reinforced with the joys and benefits of rural America. We watched black and white television shows about Mayberry and Green Acres. Now, not all of these shows illustrated the best of country living, but they gave us a connection just like our music and high school plays.

But then things started to change. In the ‘70s, big wig television executives led the “rural purge” to remove these popular series and replace them with ones that focused on big cities. Fast forward and today and you’ll find few television shows or even movies devoted to a rural ethos.

And just as the media moved to the city or overseas many of our companies did the same. Then we watched wave after wave of young men and women pack up and head down different roads. This rural brain drain has continued to pressure our economies.

The farm crisis in the 1990s dealt another blow to rural America and we never recovered before the 9/11 economic retraction. The 2008 recession further decimated many small communities. Repeated natural disasters added insult to injury.

But standing here today I still believe in the promise of rural Georgia. No, nothing so bold that every small town will be saved and regain their prosperity but there are positive signs everywhere I travel … and I travel a lot.

There’s a real longing to return to our roots and a more authentic life is brewing … literally. All over Georgia once deserted downtowns are seeing new life from busy Blue Ridge and Grumpy Old Men brewery to a foodie’s dream in Thomasville to Thirteenth Colony’s investment in Americus. Once empty storefronts are now home to local coffee shops and cape makers. Second story offices are now hip lofts. Farm-to-table restaurants are finding acclaim from Bainbridge to Rome. Mayors, city councils, and county commissions are investing in our hometowns in an effort to lure back the missing millennials.

Innovative farms like White Oak Pastures and Dickey Farms are creating new markets for their products and opening their barns to a new generation of tourists who are eager to learn how their food is made or grown. Landmarks like Jekyll Island, the Okefenokee Swamp Park, Toccoa Falls, the Go Fish Education Center, Smithgall Woods State Park, and Tybee Island are beacons for newcomers to see the value, the diversity, the importance of our natural resources, and the majesty of rural Georgia.

Visionary superintendents and teachers are reinventing education delivery, and rural-based colleges and universities are training the next generation of talent and giving them critical entrepreneurial skills for long term success.

Everywhere you look you’ll see folks working to improve the quality of life in an effort to attract and keep the next generation of talent, and state leaders are leading the way. Speaker David Ralston and the Georgia House of Representatives have prioritized rural Georgia. Lt. Governor Geoff Duncan and his Senate colleagues have invested in rural healthcare and innovation. Governor Kemp and his entire administration has focused on rural economic growth and prosperity.

The Georgia Chamber was founded in rural Georgia, and in 2017, we opened the Center for Rural Prosperity in beautiful and bustling Tifton. We are focused on helping our local chambers prosper, on developing innovative policies and strategies, persistently telling rural Georgia’s story, and connecting best practices from around the world. We’ve seen successful communities create maker spaces like the one in Warner Robins to provide the tools for entrepreneurs and start-ups. City managers have instituted lean zoning to make it easier for developers to provide products that millennials and zoomers demand. Organizations like Locate South Georgia are allowing economic developers to work across political boundaries.

The Fanning Institute at UGA is helping teach the next group of local leaders. Cities like Albany are connecting downtowns with colleges with neighborhoods with new path systems. In October we’ll host our 3rd Annual Rural Prosperity Summit (www.ruralprosperitysummit.com) to hear more of these inspirational stories.

If you care about the future of your small towns, your businesses, and grandchildren, then I encourage you to take up the mantle of opportunity and tell the good stories of rural Georgia (@ruralganews). I encourage you to invest in our small towns, to bring jobs and capital and energy. Devote yourself to your local Chamber of Commerce, to your schools and civic clubs. Commit to making a difference.

Working with our local, state, and national partners the Georgia Chamber will passionately advocate for the brighter future for rural Georgia. I hope that you’ll join us and become evangelists for a new Rural Renaissance.

 

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