Originally created 11/28/98

Poor areas find friends at Capitol



ATLANTA -- If the impoverished counties of east-central and southwest Georgia could ever count on friends at the state Capitol to lend a hand, it's now.

Albany's Mark Taylor was just elected lieutenant governor. The new secretary of state is Bainbridge's Cathy Cox. Two of the three state Senate budget negotiators are Americus' George Hooks and Augusta's Charles Walker, a native of Burke County.

In the state House, key members include Jimmy Skipper from Americus, Bob Hanner from Dawson, Richard Royal from Camilla, Butch Parrish of Swainsboro, and Calvin Smyre and Tom Buck from Columbus.

The chairmen of both the House and Senate agriculture committees are from far southwest Georgia.

Legislators like state Rep. Sistie Hudson, D-Sparta, who represents six mostly poor counties, hope Mr. Taylor and other powerful rural lawmakers can help resurrect regions of the state suffering from decades of decline.

"I thought it was important in this election cycle to support people from rural areas. They know what it's like," she said.

Retiring Gov. Zell Miller "says on his Internet Web site there are 2,000 jobs created each week, but they are not being created here," Ms. Hudson added.

She expects the leadership from rural areas to build on what the state has already started. Mr. Miller this year created regional economic development offices using state Department of Industry, Trade and Tourism staff and pumped millions of dollars into rural airport improvements.

"I don't know exactly what direction we need to go in. But we need more incentives to get industry to locate here, and that is something Mark Taylor is trying to figure out right now," Ms. Hudson said.

Ms. Cox, a former state lawmaker, said she is reminded of the impoverishment of her region every time she visits her hometown.

To jump-start local fortunes, she hopes the state continues to four-lane U.S. Highway 27 from Florida northward to siphon traffic from Interstate 75 and redirect cars and trucks through small south Georgia communities.

Mr. Taylor also points to road-building as part of the solution to rural poverty.

"We have some challenges in old cotton-belt counties where we haven't made the transition from total dependence on agriculture to a balanced economy," he said. "But places like Terrell and Dawson (counties) have done very well attracting industry because they have a four-lane highway."

Industry incentives will be another key to boosting the fortunes of strapped counties, Mr. Taylor said.

The longtime Albany state senator said people miss the mark when they blame Atlanta for sapping state resources. The biggest threat is from outside Georgia.

"South Carolina and Alabama are really aggressive. We must help rural Georgia stay competitive," Mr. Taylor said.

But without proper work-force training and decent city and county services, rural communities will not be able to hold onto new industries.

"You don't have the road system or water and sewer systems or basic infrastructure in many of those counties. That is something we must correct," Mr. Taylor said. "The local communities have to make a decision to invest and the state and federal government must invest as well."

Ms. Hudson, a former Sparta mayor and a longtime advocate for rural development, said the battle lines have always been drawn along country-city lines.

She expects the new leadership to know better.

"Under Gov. Joe Frank Harris, they always used to talk about the two Georgias. There are still two, and a matter of fact, there's probably three. There's urban, there's the rural and there's the very poor rural."

County statistics Georgia counties with highest unemployment, unofficial count for September 1998:

Warren -- 17.8 percent

Randolph -- 12.7

Jefferson -- 12.5

Ben Hill -- 11.4

Burke -- 11.1

Emanuel -- 10.8

Hancock -- 10.7

Terrell -- 10.7

Wheeler -- 10.3

Turner -- 10.2

Source: Georgia Labor Department

Georgia counties with the greatest percentage of population loss, 1930-1997:

Taliaferro -- -69.5 percent

Webster -- -55

Baker -- -53.8

Randolph -- -53.3

Calhoun -- -52.6

Clay -- -51.5

Stewart -- -49.1

Wilcox -- -47.9

Wheeler -- -46.9

Glascock -- -46.3

Source: Professor Doug Bachtel, University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences

Lawrence Viele is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.