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Local leaders attend Rural Development Summit

Pictured are One Valdosta-Lowndes Director Mary Beth Brownlee, Donalsonville City Manager Jeffrey Hatcher, Seminole County Manager Paula Granger, BetterWay Initiative and Chamber of Commerce Chairman and Donalsonville News Editor David Maxwell, Chamber President Sarah Avery, Donalsonville Downtown Development Authority Director Tore Gravlee, and Donalsonville City Councilman Mitch Blanks

Valdosta State University’s Center for South Georgia Regional Impact recently kicked off its second annual 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 Irwin County, Jones County, Pierce County, Seminole County, Tattnall County, and Ware County were selected to participate in VSU’s 2023 Rural Development Institute.

Seminole County’s attendees included Paula Granger, Mitch Blanks, Jeffrey Hatcher, Tori Gravlee, Sarah Avery, and David Maxwell.

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.  

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 the elected official’s role in economic development, the current economic environment and future projections, how to compete in a rural community, downtown redevelopment strategies, retail as a catalyst for economic growth, tourism opportunities to generate wealth, and more.

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.

Hatcher, Donalsonville City Manager, commented, “The Rural Development Institute allows rural communities in south Georgia to discuss methods to encourage development in their hometowns. RDI connects local government officials and community partners with resources to benefit their constituents. As city manager, I appreciated the chance to sit down with a council member, our county manager, Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Development, and BetterWay to develop plans for improving Donalsonville and Seminole County. This Summit allowed us to focus on what makes living in Seminole County and Donalsonville great. It also allowed us to begin the process of improving it for everyone”.

BetterWay and Chamber Chairman, and Donalsonville News Editor Maxwell added, “Issues and projects addressed at the summit, along with the new alliances formed, position us  to potentially open some very exciting doors for all of us in Seminole County. Discussions at the summit reaffirmed to all of us that teamwork is essential in any effort we undertake to make a positive impact. Our number one mission has to be to find a way to work together, combine our efforts, sing the same song, develop the plan we want, and then work the plan to make positive things happen.”

Summit mentors represented various organizations across Georgia — One Valdosta-Lowndes, Georgia Power Company, Retail Strategies, Hodge Consulting Services, and the Georgia Municipal Association. 

Featured Summit speakers came from the Georgia Department of Economic Development; the Georgia Department of Community Affairs; the Georgia Municipal Association; Association County Commissioners of Georgia; Ladenburg Thalmann Asset Management of New York, New York; Deloitte Consulting LLP of Chicago, Illinois; West AlabamaWorks of Tuscaloosa, Alabama; the Downtown Development Authority of Bainbridge; Retail Strategies of Birmingham, Alabama; One Valdosta-Lowndes; Transformation Partners LLC; and Advanced Economic Development Leadership Program of Alabama.

Donalsonville City Councilman Blanks commented, “One of Governor Kemp’s initiative’s is to bring industry to Southwest Georgia. As elected officials and other key players in our county, we need to have our community ready when the opportunity presents itself. Each entity have objectives they would like to see achieved.  We can achieved more by working together for the common good our community.  If we do invest in our community neither will others.”   

Each team left the Summit with a prioritized list of projects and initiatives 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.

Donalsonville Downtown Development Authority Director Gravlee commented, “The Rural Development Institute in Valdosta was an invaluable training spotlighting economic development, downtown development, work force development, tourism, retail strategies and financial planning. All the necessary components to making any community successful. I’m optimistic that many of these ideas can be implemented back here in Donalsonville and Seminole county in the near future.”

Moore added, “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.” Based on initial feedback and comments from participants, presenters, and mentors, VSU’s Rural Development Institute Summit continues to be a tremendous success.

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.

“We have a great foundation and a working model for universities to have a direct impact on the communities they serve,” Moore said.

County Manager Granger added, “Attending the Rural Development Institute provided me with the opportunity to collaborate with my local counterparts including city officials, chamber representatives, downtown development authority, and our local newspaper, in an environment that preludes positive synergy between all aspects of public service in a cohesive manner to facilitate a singular purpose, enhancing the quality of life for our citizens and providing a path for positive growth to expand business and industry in our county.”

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