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VOL. 42 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 13, 2018

Rural Tennessee fighting for its prosperity

By Frank Daniels III

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For many Tennesseans, the pain and financial loss of the Great Recession have faded.

The state’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the Southeast United States, 3.5 percent in May. Household income and the state’s gross domestic product are at their highest points, and Tennessee continues to attract “high-quality” jobs, defined as those that pay higher than the county median wage.

But economic prosperity has been concentrated around Tennessee’s metropolitan areas, and nearly half of the state’s 95 counties are classified as “distressed” (15 counties) or “at-risk” (29), based on economic performance indicators tracked by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

ARC uses the three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income, and the poverty rate to determine the economic status of the nation’s counties. ARC categorizes U.S. counties in the bottom 10 percent as distressed.

Tennessee’s economic boom illustrates that a rising tide does not necessarily lift all boats, and the state’s political leaders have an opportunity to address this.

Distressed counties

After the Recession, the number of distressed counties in Tennessee began rising and reached a high of 26 in 2013, an increase from 13 in 2010, according the state. [https://www.tn.gov/transparenttn.html]

In response to the rapid rise in distressed counties, Gov. Bill Haslam formed the Governor’s Rural Task Force in 2015. The 78-page task force report made a number of recommendations on economic development, education, and improved services in rural communities.

The report cited two essential areas of need:

-- Rural communities need the ability to take advantage of available resources to achieve established goals

-- Rural communities need to plan and design places that promote the area’s overall wellbeing.

Metro growth brings challenges

Americans have been steadily migrating to metropolitan areas since the end of World War II for jobs and increased opportunities that concentrated populations offer. The metropolitan migration has accelerated in Tennessee since the 2008 Recession with about half of the jobs created in the state occurring in just one metro area – Nashville.

People flocking to Nashville and the state’s other metro areas have brought both economic opportunity and challenges. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools are struggling with the cost and complexity of increased student populations and the increasing diversity of that population. Nashville’s traffic woes will not get relief from a proposed $5.4 billion transit plan that voters rejected by a nearly two-to-one margin on May 1.

The bloom may not be off the metropolitan area bloom, but Nashville’s struggles with growth show that investing in rural and small-town Tennessee could help both those communities and our urban areas.

Small-town renaissance

The Governor’s Rural Task Force report shows how complex the task of growing rural prosperity will be, and how government is just a small part of any solution.

There are renaissance stories of how small towns are making progress, and at the center of those stories is often a contrarian entrepreneur who has an emotional attachment to the town.

The story of Darla Moore and Lake City, South Carolina, in The New York Times or of Stephen Hill and Kinston, North Carolina, in Business North Carolina magazine are examples of passionate visionaries who are transforming almost forgotten towns.

The people we elect in 2018 will have a chance to foster those kinds of stories in Tennessee.

Frank Daniels is a writer living in Clarksville. A former editor, columnist and business executive, he is a member of the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame. You reach him at fdanielsiii@mac.com