Originally created 09/12/99

State officials look to aid rural Georgia



SPARTA, Ga. -- People in Sparta will tell you Hancock County used to be a bustling place before the Civil War and that historic homes, cheap land and plentiful water are the assets that could restore prosperity. The one asset in short supply has been hope.

But in May, county leaders learned that the Kialegee Indian tribe was offering tens of millions of dollars and 3,500 jobs to any community that would allow it to build a casino. Hancock County Commission Chairwoman Betty Hill jumped at the deal.

Even a group of local preachers is helping her bring the gambling hall to this remote area an hour from Augusta and an hour from Macon.

"People need jobs," she says.

Besides, she adds, rural counties in Georgia repeatedly get shunned by state politicians. This is a way the area can help itself. "The only serious time for them is election time. We don't see them any other time," she said.

Ms. Hill's sentiments are shared by many of her constituents.

"It's just one rainbow to chase after another," said Steve Church, a real estate agent. "What's missing here so much is hope. ... Without hope, it's hard to get people to jump on the bandwagon for anything if they don't think it's going anywhere."

Hancock County, with an unemployment rate stuck in the range of 9 percent to 10 percent, captured statewide attention with its welcome of casino gambling -- something residents there say they can't view as a question of morality when they have families that regularly go hungry.

But while Hancock may be one of the most dramatic, it is not the only county frustrated by a weak economy in the midst of metro-Atlanta's boom.

Several factors have come together to put rural economic development on the state agenda.

Elections, for one, made it an issue. Two major candidates for governor and one for lieutenant governor, all from the Atlanta area, recognized that rural voters automatically suspected them of having little concern for the rest of the state.

As a result, they campaigned by promising attention to rural Georgia. The state elected the first lieutenant governor from south Georgia since 1952, Mark Taylor, who has a reputation of seeking aid for his region.

A second factor is the urban sprawl and air pollution that are crowding Atlanta to the point that state leaders fear growth statewide will stall if new jobs aren't spawned elsewhere.

A third factor is money. With the state expecting $4.8 billion as its share of a national tobacco settlement, big projects can be funded in sparsely populated parts of the state without antagonizing areas with greater concentrations of taxpaying voters.

"When Atlanta had needs, when Columbus had issues, we did it because it was good for the state," Mr. Taylor said. "Now we'll go to them and ask for their help in the name of equity."

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Walter Jones at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.