By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Earlier this month, the State of Tennessee released a lengthy report detailing specific recommendations on ways to drive greater economic growth in the more rural parts of Tennessee. On Friday, the Co-Chairs of the “Governor’s Rural Task Force” offered their thoughts about the plan on the last day of the 63rd annual “Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development” held in Nashville.
The suggestions advanced by the Commissioners of Agriculture, Tourism, and Economic and Community Development (ECD) ranged from activities that can be undertaken immediately with little or no additional funding to those that are extraordinarily important but also unbelievably expensive. Heading the latter category is making broadband internet available to every Tennessee citizen.
In his presentation the previous day that opened the conference, ECD Commissioner Randy Boyd noted that 34 percent of rural citizens do not have the critically important access, something that is almost akin to running water and sewers in terms of a community’s livability. That compares with just two percent of the citizens in the urban areas,
“Every other state is facing the same issue,” Boyd said, while noting that cost estimates to make the infrastructure available in the Volunteer State range from $500 million to $1.7 billion.
At the other end of the spectrum are efforts that can be launched right now. They range from helping communities map their assets to developing a clearinghouse of services available to rural communities or launching a healthy food initiative.
Entrepreneurship was a consistent theme throughout the conference, so it was only natural that supporting entrepreneurial efforts would be one of the types of new or expanded initiatives that was high on each Commissioner’s list.
Saying that “the people who are going to change our rural communities are already there,” Agriculture Commissioner Jai Templeton said the department would be doing more to help them start or expand businesses.
That message was reiterated by Tourism Commissioner Kevin Triplett who said one of his top priorities is providing marketing grants that will help communities develop and promote their tourism assets.
“We make some incredible stuff in Tennessee,” he added. “We need to promote those products.”
Boyd cited some initiatives launched last year that will be continued or expanded. The list included grants for site development, tourism, and entrepreneurship.
“It’s more of the same, but they really worked last year,” he said.
Boyd also called our one new initiative that builds on something launched by the CO, a Jackson-based entrepreneurial support organization with co-working and maker spaces. The organization converted a 1988 Bluebird school bus into a mobile innovation lab. The Commissioner has his sights set on adding three mobile labs to the fleet so that youth across the state can be exposed to technology opportunities.
All three Commissioners were clearly excited about the report and its long-term impact.
“It’s the beginning of the great Tennessee rural renaissance,” Boyd said of the roadmap.