VALDOSTA – Valdosta State University’s Center for South Georgia Regional Impact recently kicked off its inaugural Rural Development Institute with a three-day Summit.
Valdosta State University’s Center for South Georgia Regional Impact recently kicked off its inaugural Rural Development Institute with a three-day Summit designed to help communities across Georgia develop an action plan for rural prosperity.
More than 40 economic development, city, county, and community leaders from Bacon County, Crawford County, Dawson County, Lanier County, Mitchell County, Seminole County, Twiggs County, and Worth County were selected to participate in VSU’s 2022 Rural Development Institute.
Before coming to the Summit teams representing each of the participating communities were tasked with using a readiness index to conduct a self-assessment of their recruitment, education, infrastructure, leadership, demographics, and quality of life.
During the Summit the teams analyzed the results of their self-assessment and worked with mentors to identify their unique opportunities and challenges, connect with experts and other available resources, build a support network, and develop a roadmap for economic vitality.
Cindy Pullen, a Lakeland-Lanier Chamber of Commerce representative and business owner, said the Rural Development Institute Summit helped her team recognize some issues that they can address very quickly. It also helped them figure out where they need to focus their attention as a community as they seek to rebuild and revitalize following the impact of COVID-19.
“We are enthusiastic, and we intend to take all of this information back and make sure everyone understands that Lanier County-Lakeland is open for business,” she shared. “We are excited about what the future holds for us.”
Darrell Moore, director of VSU’s Center for South Georgia Regional Impact, said the Rural Development Institute Summit offered a program that emphasized experiential learning with a heavy dose of discussion, debate, and teamwork.
Highlights included content experts, professional developers, and consultants delivering interactive and engaging sessions on manufacturing, retail as a catalyst for economic growth, downtown redevelopment, rural tourism strategies to generate wealth, and more. Participating communities also heard about workforce issues, the role elected officials play in economic development, and how community development is often a prelude to economic development.
After each session the teams “worked with a mentor to reflect on what they had just learned and then talk about how they could take some of those ideas back and implement them in their community,” Moore said.
Mary Beth Brownlee, county consulting services associate with Association County Commissioners of Georgia, served as a mentor for Crawford County. She described the Rural Development Institute Summit as a special opportunity for rural communities across the state “to come together and talk about the unique issues that face rural Georgia.”
“It’s been exciting to watch them learn together, have new experiences, and share,” she added. “I think that’s the great benefit of a program like this.”
The Summit also included mentors from Live Oak Concepts LLC, Georgia Power Company, Retail Strategies, Georgia EMC, and the Georgia Municipal Association.
Martha McAfee, a member of the Crawford County Development Authority Board of Directors and economic/community development manager with the Fort Valley Utility Commission, said she enjoyed having a mentor work directly with her team, at their table, throughout the Rural Development Institute Summit.
“I’ve learned a lot, and I’m looking forward to going back into my community and implementing some of the ideas that we have talked about,” she said.
Each team left the Summit with a prioritized list of projects and initiatives that are designed to build a better future for the people who live, work, play, and visit in their communities. Through experiential learning initiatives at VSU, the Center for Regional Impact will use university faculty, staff, and students to help each community implement at least one of their projects in the coming months.
“We are currently working on taking those lists and identifying resources on our campus, and we will run one or two projects for each community through the Center for South Georgia Regional Impact,” Moore shared.
Keith Jones with the Mitchell County Board of Commissioners said he looks forward to continuing the work his team started at the Rural Development Institute Summit.
“One of the things that really struck me was the opportunity for us to really expand our thought process in terms of collaboration with our local municipalities and school systems,” he said. “In Mitchell County, Georgia, we have four school systems, and we have four municipalities, so we are trying to figure out how we can put everyone in the room together and start having a strategic conversation about how we are going to move our community forward.”
Based on initial feedback and comments from participants, presenters, and mentors, VSU has declared the first Rural Development Institute Summit a tremendous success.
“We know that there will be lessons learned from the inaugural session, and we will make appropriate adjustments for next year’s class,” Moore explained. “I believe we have the opportunity to build something special. The implementation phase will be critical to our long-term success and having a direct impact on our rural communities.”
VSU’s Rural Development Institute is an opportunity for the university to continue supporting the work of the Governor’s Rural Strike Team and provide a positive impact on Georgia’s rural communities.
Moore and other VSU representatives recently had an opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in a roundtable discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution with congressional staff and public universities. It was an opportunity for VSU to share some of the work its faculty, staff, and students have done through the Center for South Georgia Regional Impact, the Governor’s Rural Strike Team, and the Rural Development Institute.
“We have a great foundation and a working model for universities to have a direct impact on the communities they serve,” Moore said.
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