For 32 years, Probate Judge Edith Ingram has been perched on her bench hearing Hancock County's problems firsthand.
She knows there are few jobs for those who choose to stay.
She knows drugs are easily accessible.
She knows it will be an uphill fight for Sparta, Ga., to grow and prosper.
"The young people, when they graduate, they don't come back because there's nothing here for them," she said.
They may come home to visit family or come back for the annual Pine Tree Festival in October, but they are not coming home for a paycheck.
At a time when Georgia is experiencing unprecedented growth, many rural counties are languishing. Georgia has the second-highest growth in per capita income in the Southeast during the past 20 years.
Georgia's unemployment rate declined to 3.8 percent in July.
Things are so good, in fact, that there are not enough workers to fill the jobs available, and the state has begun efforts to recruit nontraditional workers - the handicapped, the elderly - back into the work force.
But that's not the case in Hancock, Warren and Jefferson counties, which are ranked No. 2, 3 and 4, respectively, in the top tier of economically disadvantaged counties.
The state's wealth is unevenly distributed.
As of 1997, 139 Georgia counties still had per capita income levels below the average for the Southeast, according to a recent report from Georgia's Rural Economic Development Council. That's not the case for most counties in the Augusta area.
Georgia long has been recognized as a tale of two cities, but there is a new economic development program and a beefed-up tax incentive program to try to change all that.
Gov. Roy Barnes' OneGeorgia and BEST tax incentive programs are the latest efforts to pump money into developing infrastructure in rural counties and reward businesses with bigger tax incentives for creating new jobs.
Betting on a casino
Hancock County is willing to try anything to pull itself out of poverty. Now all bets are on a proposed gambling casino, which could be an economic jackpot.
A collaboration among one of Georgia's poorest counties, an American Indian tribe from Oklahoma and some entrepreneurs, the project calls for a 150,000- to 200,000-square-foot casino, a 350-room hotel and an 18-hole golf course to be built in Hancock County on land held in trust by the federal government for the Kialegee tribe.
Close to Interstate 20, about halfway between Atlanta and Augusta, the casino could be a gambling mecca.
"It is Hancock County's best shot at survival," Judge Ingram said.
Forecasters say the project could generate 3,500 jobs and $275 million in direct spending in the first year and more than 10,000 jobs and $1.25 billion in the fifth.
Some local residents are holding out little hope that the casino will become a reality, though.
"I'll believe it when I see it, said Gwendolyn Greene, 44, who has worked as a cook and cashier at Tiyli Family Restaurant for 10 years. She presides over an all-you-can-eat buffet - fried chicken, barbecue, rice, mashed potatoes - where courthouse workers and those just passing through come to lunch each day.
Ronald Murchinson, 43, is one of the few who travel to Hancock County to work. He is a counselor at Hancock State Prison.
Built in 1990, the close-security prison houses more than 1,200 inmates. Though some communities would adamantly oppose having a prison nearby, Hancock County welcomed it and its 400 new jobs with open arms, even donating the land.
Mr. Murchinson makes the 20-minute drive to work each day from Milledgeville, but most of Hancock County's residents work out of town and return home each night to roost.
"They stay because it's the only place they've ever lived. They stay for the hometown atmosphere," Mr. Murchison said.
The county does not have many of the most basic state and federal programs - programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education and services for the elderly.
People like Judge Ingram are used to filling in.
"I think we get promised and pushed over for a lot of things because of the racial content of our county; we're 97 percent black," Judge Ingram said.
The casino, she said, would be a godsend.
"After all, we have busloads of people going out of here each weekend to go gambling," Judge Ingram said. "So if they are going to do it anyway, we might as well profit from it."
The steady erosion of the economic base in rural Georgia can easily be traced to the decline of agriculture, said Jeff Humphreys, director of the University of Georgia's Selig Center for Economic Growth.
"Agriculture is no longer a major growth industry in this state, and it's unlikely to change anytime soon," he said. "They are also geographically isolated from the state's major metropolitan areas, which is where most of the growth has taken place in recent years. That's made it harder for them to attract new industry," he said.
Rising from the ashes
Then there is the decline in textiles that began in the 1970s as more and more mills moved business overseas, where labor was cheaper, Dr. Humphreys said. By their very nature, rural economies are extremely fragile, pinning their hopes and dreams on only a handful of employers.
So when a fire leveled Lincoln County's largest employer last August, it was devastating.
"That was just a major disaster for us, a devastating blow to Lincoln County's economy," said Alana Burke, executive director of Lincoln County's Chamber of Commerce. "But even before that happened, we realized the need to diversify."
The fire at Crider Inc.'s chicken-processing plant - Lincoln County's largest employer - displaced about 212 workers.
"When you have one major employer in a community, it just makes the overall business environment more risky," Dr. Humphreys said.
The Crider loss was a crippling blow to Lincoln County, which already had the state's seventh-highest unemployment rate.
Today, Lincoln County's unemployment rate is still in double digits, but many of the people who were displaced by the fire have found work outside the county.
Mrs. Burke said 52 percent of the work force travels out of town to work each morning, and chances are the workers will spend their money out of town, too.
Lincoln County seems to be doing all the right things, however. It is looking for that diamond in the rough, and its biggest gem is Thurmond Lake.
Plans are on the drawing board for a major resort and conference center, complete with a golf course, restaurant, tennis courts and health facility.
"You have to look for some hook that makes your county special," Dr. Humphreys said. "It's a combination of leadership and salesmanship. You have to look around and see what you have to offer and see if that meshes well with some of the growth engines that are powering the state's economy."
Tourism is one of those engines.
With 400 miles of shoreline, the idea of a conference center/resort at the lake was a natural, Mrs. Burke said. The resort/conference center would create an estimated 200 jobs.
Georgia's Rural Development Council's State of Rural Georgia Report - the first comprehensive assessment of economic conditions and prospects in rural Georgia - points out that some counties must get back to the basics, to improve from within, before they can begin to attract others to their counties.
"Many communities are simply not prepared for large-scale economic development," according to the report, which reflects the work of the council's Technical Advisory Committee. "Incentives and speculative building programs have not, and will not, rescue these communities from entrenched poverty. Rather than attempting any quick fixes, these communities would benefit greatly from a sustained effort to overcome the socio-economic distress rooted in illiteracy, teen-age pregnancy, high dropout rates, drug use, poor schools and lack of health care."
Back to basics
There are 51 counties defined as either lagging or declining in the Rural Georgia Report. These counties represent 8 percent of the state's population and more than 40 percent of the land mass.
Jefferson County is at the top of the list. Brad Day hopes it won't be for long.
Mr. Day is economic development director for the Jefferson County Development Authority and president of the chamber of commerce. On the job for seven months, he is the county's first full-time economic development professional. The former Gainesville/Hall County resident brings a fresh perspective to the job and realizes the challenges ahead.
"I knew that we were a part of Georgia that was not enjoying the economic prosperity that other parts of Georgia was enjoying, and I saw a great opportunity to help," Mr. Day said.
In Jefferson County, the Forstmann textile mill closed two years ago, putting 500 people out of work. Last year, the unemployment rate was about 14 percent, but today it hovers around 10 percent because many have found jobs outside the county.
Jobs in Jefferson County largely center on the natural resources available in the county.
Mr. Day knows he must begin with the basics - improving the infrastructure and transportation.
"We're especially excited about the Fall Line Freeway that is being constructed," he said. "It will go right through northern city of Wrens and will intersect with U.S. Highway 1, which bisects north and south through our county and joins with I-20 and I-16."
Jefferson County does not have an industrial park. But what it and other rural areas can offer is a way of life. It's something that needs to be balanced with the drive for economic prosperity, Mr. Day said.
The Georgia's Rural Development Council's State of Rural Georgia Report identifies 12 key components that counties need to be economically viable:
Active and informed leadership
A trained work force
Technology and innovation
Targeted and coordinated investment (public- and private-sector partnerships)
Private-sector participation in community development
Support of existing industry
Support of entrepreneurship
Access to quality health care
Regionalism and cooperation
Some of the counties have some of these things, but not one of them has all of these things.
In Warren County, one of the missing elements has been cohesive leadership. It's common for the police to be called to break up heated arguments at county commission meetings.
Warren County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director O.B. McCorkle says those times are changing.
Three years ago, the county began participating in a leadership training program that has brought young leadership on board in city and county posts.
There will be a change in the county commission chairman's seat with this election.
"We're developing young leaders and trying to get young people involved in the process," Mrs. McCorkle said. "I don't think we've lacked in leadership; it's just that all of our leaders have not been working on the same page."
Warren County's best plan for economic advancement will be working regionally, Mrs. McCorkle said, and Warren County is expected to be a key player in the proposed regional industrial park. Plans are to locate the park in Camak off Interstate 20.
"It's much easier to go in together and promote the area, rather than just promoting your own county," Mrs. McCorkle said.
Right now, the county is thrilled with the jobs created by Zorlu Manufacturing Co. The company moved into the former Health-Tex building, which closed in 1997, putting 210 people out of work.
"The whole community is very excited about having them here," Mrs. McCorkle said. "They have made a great difference in our economy. They started operations Jan. 1 and were expected to have 40 employees, and now they're up to 180."
Learning is fundamental
Like other rural Georgia counties, Warren County has many of its bases covered. The chamber is working hard to satisfy the needs of its local industry; it has three exits off Interstate 20 that provide adequate transportation access to the county, and it has three local health facilities that provide medical care.
Like most of the other counties topping the list of impoverished counties, though, Warren County lacks in completing the 12 basic elements the Rural Georgia report outlined.
The common link among all of those is the lack of a quality school system.
"You need an education system that trains productive workers," Dr. Humphreys said. "Even to attract a new company, the employees are going to have to want to come to that community and educate their children in the local schools. So unless you have an education system that is competitive - at least with the rest of the state - then you are going to have a difficult time recruiting companies."
The statistics are disheartening. Because education reform is so closely tied to economic development, education reform is an issue that's more important than ever. It is the reason education reform will be such a critical issue in the state Legislature this year.
Dr. Humphreys concedes that economic development is not an easy task. If it were, no county would be lagging and everyone would be enjoying the economic health and prosperity that some counties are experiencing. Solving the problems of these rural areas is multidimensional.
"If you have the infrastructure and the education system, you really have a good chance at growing, but without those things, it's hard," he said.
"But try to be positive. All these communities have something going for them, and that something is the fact that they're in Georgia. Georgia has a good reputation as a business-friendly state that is experiencing a strong, underlying growth trend. Prosperity in Atlanta, Augusta and Athens helps rural Georgia. Every time a major industry moves to Atlanta, it increases the chance that a back office operation will locate somewhere else, perhaps in rural Georgia."
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.
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