By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Anyone who regularly reads teknovation.biz is aware of the Haslam Administration’s emphasis these days on rural economic development.
Nearly three years ago, the Governor challenged the Tennessee Farm Bureau Federation, Tennessee Department of Agriculture and the University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture to help develop a strategy for ensuring the growth and prosperity of agriculture and forestry over the next decade. That call to action produced a report issued in December 2013 titled the “Governor’s Rural Challenge: A 10-Year Strategic Plan.”
Since the beginning of 2015, there have been a number of developments designed to accelerate the strategy, starting with the appointment of Amy New as the state’s first-ever Assistant Commissioner for Rural Development in the Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD).
In late April, two venture funds with Tennessee ties – Meritus Kirchner (Oak Ridge) and Innova Ventures (Memphis) – won designation as Rural Development Business Companies, only the third and fourth such designations in the nation’s history. While not initiated by the state, the two funds with Tennessee bases put an additional face on the importance of rural development and opportunities for Tennessee-based enterprises located in rural areas to secure much needed capital.
And, in August, there were two additional actions. Governor Haslam announced the appointment of a Rural Development Task Force, and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture joined with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide $220,000 in seed funding to jumpstart “AgLaunch,” a focal point for rural economic development start-ups.
So, it was only natural that rural economic development was a key theme during this week’s 62nd annual “Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development.” ECD Commissioner Randy Boyd referenced the topic in his opening presentation which was followed by a more detailed overview of $8 million in new funding that New outlined. The “Rural Economic Development Fund” included allocations to further enhance rural industrial sites, emphasize tourism in rural communities, develop incubators, and conduct a study to benchmark broadband deployment in rural communities. Click here to read more about the program specifics.
The conference also featured a panel on “Approaches for Supporting Rural Entrepreneurs” that included Doug Minter of the Knoxville Chamber and Jeff Brown of The Biz Foundry in Cookeville. They touted two of their respective initiatives – TN Code Academy for Brown and the Propel Mentor-Protege Program for Minter. Both have been the subject of previous posts on teknovation.biz.
Brown said the coding initiative was a response to the need to have a workforce that would attract more technology companies to the Upper Cumberland region. It led to the launch of the “100 Girls of Code” program that has thus far trained more than 2,000 young women.
“We’ve seen kids build a totally functional game ready for the market in four or five days,” he said.
Minter says he came-up with the Propel concept after observing how federal contractors in Oak Ridge used the mentor-protege approach to help grow new subcontractors. As previously reported on teknovation.biz, it has been expanded to counties contiguous to Knoxville, bringing on a rural dimension with a unique set of challenges.
Minter said the cost of commuting to Knoxville for regular sessions could have been a deterrent to some entrepreneurs in the rural counties, so he acquired gas cards to help defray those expenses.
He advocated for regional approaches to growing businesses in rural communities as well as what he called “economic inclusion.”
The annual event concluded yesterday with the annual presentation by the Governor and a reminder from Commissioner Boyd that the conference theme – “Team Tennessee” – is really a call to arms for all Tennesseans.