by Chris Clark, President & CEO, Georgia Chamber
My Fitzgerald roots ground me and millions of other small-town Americans to a strong work ethic, value of family, and a deep-rooted faith. We believe in community and helping each other through the tough times. And we celebrate in parades and on back porches when things are good. Of course, those occasions often come from long battles and commitment. My grandfather once mentioned as we floated down a tannin-colored swamp in a 16-foot john boat, that folks in “rural Georgia have to work twice as hard to get half as much.” Each time I see another economic outlook or unemployment report, I hear his echo.
Rural Georgia was finally starting to climb out of a recession that bottomed out for most of the world just 8 short years ago. Thanks to Governor Kemp’s laser-like focus on rural economic inequality, Lieutenant Governor Duncan’s relentless advocacy for rural healthcare and Speaker David Ralston’s longtime focus on rural prosperity, we were seeing brighter horizons. Local economic developers were realizing significant payback for their efforts. Taurus Firearms opened in Bainbridge. Georgia Pacific announced a new facility in Albany. Moultrie opened PCOM, and SKC broke ground in Covington.
As the COVID-19 healthcare crisis rolled through, we saw the best of free enterprise in these same communities. Banks worked tirelessly to facilitate PPP loans. American Textiles in Tifton shifted from traditional production to the creation of personal protection equipment and The Levee Studios in Albany launched video training services for front-line workers.
But now, the COVID Recession officially begins and I worry about the impact to rural America and potential rebound of small business. This pandemic has further exposed systemic rural issues as well as raised new concerns.
• Trade wars and migrant labor concerns have already disrupted the hard labor of farmers and foresters. Though USDA Secretary Perdue is supporting family farmers with greater effectiveness than ever before, Georgians need to understand that if our farmers, food processors and migrant laborers do not work, no one eats.
• Generations of systemic racism and a lack of opportunity in the Rural Black Belt has long been a deterrent to prosperity and now we have seen the pandemic hit African Americans in disproportionate numbers.
• Rural Georgia is experiencing a grey tsunami as the population ages. Over the next decade, senior citizen retirees in rural Georgia will increase by 25% leaving millions of jobs vacant. In equal measure, the ‘Automation Economy’ is projected to eliminate 39 million U.S. jobs largely in our rural communities. COVID-19 has accelerated both of these economic disruptions.
• Rural students are often considered disadvantaged because they are not properly connected, and the lockdown illustrated that a lack of 5G and broadband only furthers the issues of disparity and economic immobility in these areas. We appreciate Comcast, Google, Verizon, Georgia’s EMCs, Windstream, and AT&T who have all invested in rural Georgia connectivity in recent months.
• Impact to the travel and tourism industry is exponentially greater in rural communities as many are home to state and national parks, historic downtowns, lakes, and other destination-driven assets. The loss of 4 to 6 months of visitors could cripple both rural business and local governments.
• USDA data shows that rural initiatives receive one-sixth the foundational support of similar projects in urban settings. Our own organization has even found it hard to raise grant funding for rural prosperity and mobility efforts. COVID-19 has now put even greater pressure on the needs of rural hospitals and other critical infrastructure.
But this recovery does not have to follow the same long and grueling path of the past nor must we accept problems and issues that have long plagued us. The Georgia Chamber’s Recovery and Resiliency Initiative has identified initial steps that will lead not just to the reestablishment of economic relief, but broader prosperity and resiliency. Local chambers of commerce around the country are leading their own recovery efforts, exemplifying best practices for regionalism, coordination, and round-the-clock focus. Moving forward, we believe the Federal and State government should help and address the following issues:
• Ensure that future federal stimulus and recovery legislation has targeted rural programs and financial support.
• Allow in-state tuition for rural colleges and post-secondary schools, providing ‘dreamer’ access while consolidating and developing non-competitive degrees and virtual learning programs to further promote economic mobility.
• Improve rural Infrastructure and connectivity through public-private investment in 5G, broadband, education, clean water, highways, bridges, airports, rail, and transit in our small communities.
• Support legal immigration reform that is essential to addressing long term workforce needs, particularly for seasonal demand in our agriculture and food processing industries.
• Bolster the health of Georgia’s hospitals, senior living centers and wellness establishments in rural areas to make these locations more attractive for businesses relocating and expanding in Georgia.
• Recognize and challenge the systemic racial inequality that exists in all our communities, both rural and urban, and demand a deeper investigation and committed daily strategy.
• Invest in connectivity, technology and introduce new delivery methods to mitigate the extreme disparity that exists among the rural student population. Access to online, technology and connectivity resources for education is paramount to dismantling economic immobility for rural America.
• Commit to strong investment in rural entrepreneurial ecosystems. We must encourage rural venture capital and provide support through maker spaces and incubators.
• Provide incentives to companies based in urban areas that hire remote workers in rural areas.
• Every business should develop their own health and safety training as well as implement long-term resiliency programs.
• Pass a national infrastructure act to fund roads, bridges, rail, in-land ports, and ‘New Economy’ connectivity.
Of course, in the end, outside forces can only help so much. The Georgia Chamber and local chambers will continue to work on systemic challenges, tackle new risks, and identify the opportunities just like we did in Fitzgerald, where I grew up. My heart will always be wandering backstage at the Grand Theater and cruising down Grant Street, admiring the men and women that cared enough to make my small town so special. We must all care enough to return our communities not just to what they were before COVID-19, but to a stronger and more vibrant community of the future.