Toward a resurgent Georgia ruraldom

Toward a resurgent Georgia ruraldom

By Gary Wisenbaker –

The “selling concept” holds that if consumers or businesses are left to themselves, they won’t buy enough of the selling company’s products. The producer, then, needs to undertake an aggressive promotional campaign to combat that customer inertia.

Blues singer Z. Z. Hill’s recording of “I Ain’t Buying What You’re Selling’” speaks of the pushback to that selling effort with the lyric “I ain’t believing what you’re telling.”

It’s a refrain heard all too often in rural America. The rural population is shrinking and those left are grayer and poorer. The young and affluent ain’t buying the pastoral lifestyle because they ain’t believing there are any benefits attendant to the quieter life.

In fact, according to the USDA, a record 1,350 rural counties lost population since 2010. That’s a little more than one third of the 3,141 counties in the United States. While it’s the fifth straight decline in as many years, the decline was the smallest since the trend started – a net loss of only 21,000 residents or 0.05%.

According to the Center for Rural Strategies, there are indications that rural America could head back into positive population change soon. Rural counties that are closer to cities actually grew slightly from 2015-2016, just as they did for the past 40 or so years until the Great Recession when the trend reversed.

These counties, however, will transform into metro areas as their populations increase. The only rural counties left will be those not associated with metropolitan creep.

And these counties will suffer increased existential pressures unless the states take steps now to “sell” the benefits of those non-metro appendaged counties.

Georgia, for example, has 105 counties (out of 159) classified as rural (under 35,000 in population). Fifty six of these are not associated with any metropolitan center, are lacking in jobs, and face dwindling populations. Some have either not gained or have lost population since the 1860s. And they can’t depend on agriculture alone for their survival.

To address this problem the Georgia legislature recently set up a Georgia Rural Development Council to look at what needs to be done to get these counties on developers’ and investors’ radar screens. Broadband availability, strengthening K-12 education performance and transportation infrastructure improvements are clearly three necessary areas to delve into.

There’s also the Georgia Agribusiness and Rural Jobs Act, authored by State Rep. Jason Shaw (R-Lakeland) and signed into law by the governor, which makes $60 million in tax credits available to companies willing to invest $100 million and demonstrate job creation and retention in designated rural counties.

Another incentive for rural investment was proposed by State Rep. Amy Carter (R-Valdosta)– the Georgia Musical Investment Act. Now signed into law, the GMIA offers a 20 percent tax credit to musical and theatrical companies producing, performing, and rehearsing in specified rural counties where their expenditures exceed $100,000 or more, depending on the nature of the production.

The health care pinch in rural Georgia also eased this year with the increase in the state’s rural hospital tax credit. This newly enacted measure raises from 70 percent to 90 percent the credit a taxpayer can claim for donations made to a qualifying rural hospital.

Where jobs, healthcare, and education are not readily available in the county next door, these are the kinds of incentives needed to make these necessities available to the deeply rural population and make these counties marketable.

Left to themselves, investors may not see the advantages of rural Georgia investment. These measures, and others like them, can change that.

The author is a corporate communications and political consultant at Blackstone, LLC in Valdosta.