A state House committee has unanimously endorsed an idea to take a close look into how Georgia lawmakers could help struggling rural communities.
“I want this council to look at the big picture and recommend legislative actions that can empower our rural areas,” said House Speaker David Ralston, explaining House Resolution 389 to a House committee on Tuesday.
The legislation would create the House Rural Development Council, a group of 15 lawmakers to be appointed by Ralston.
The Blue Ridge lawmaker is the highest-ranked Republican in the state House. Some of the problems he sees in his mountainous district are familiar in other parts of the state.
“We lost a hospital in Ellijay just last spring, one of several rural hospitals to close in Georgia in recent years,” Ralston said. “However, this Friday afternoon I’m going back home to reopen a new emergency room facility as part of a new ‘micro hospital’ with fewer than 10 patent beds in that town. This is the kind of creative approach to addressing issues in rural Georgia that I want this council to explore.”
Problems in rural communities can include population loss, lack of doctors or hospitals, poor infrastructure, slow or nonexistent internet connections, less educational opportunity, job scarcity and overall lack of growth. Ralston brought to the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee a study from Georgia State University that shows most rural counties had fewer jobs in 2014 than in 2007.
“I am not interested in government creating jobs,” said Ralston. “Rather, I want to create an environment in which private enterprise can create jobs in rural Georgia.”
According to the Georgia State report, Crawford County lost 11 percent of its jobs between 2007 and 2014. That was due to some industries leaving, and some commercial vacancies during the recession, said Roberta-Crawford Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Patti Temple.
Temple said her community has a lot going for it, in its development authority, local elected leaders, health care, heritage and things to do, including part of the Peaches to Beaches yard sale this weekend.
But there are stressors, she said. The county’s only grocery store has closed. Crawford is trying to work with the federal government on U.S. routes 80 and 341, where traffic doesn’t flow as well as it could. Temple said there’s a good bit of traffic going both ways, particularly on 341.
“But it just becomes a deterrent when you have to go through all the counties and then you get to Crawford County and you don’t even have … passing lanes,” she said.
Temple said she’d like to invite the council to Crawford to show them the good parts, as well as the parts that might be a drag on the county.
Bobbie Robinson helped create the Rural Studies program at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, where she is dean of the School of Liberal Arts. She said there is a reality of “two Georgias,” an old political phrase that splits Georgia into two parts: more urban areas that seem to attract the most jobs and growth, and then the rest of the state. She the idea that the lawmakers would conduct forums in rural areas is highly encouraging.
Robinson also named a few issues she sees in rural communities. There’s brain drain — young people leaving rural hometowns to seek the kind of work they want. And another is food deserts: large areas without a good grocery store. And another is wonky, but she said it could have big results: getting groups of as few as two cities or counties to work with each other instead of going it alone when they want to do something, such as deliver a public service.
The resolution creating the House council now needs full House approval. It would start work this spring or summer.