Rural Economic Development Fund launched to aid smaller counties

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam talks about the commitment the state has to Volkswagen Wednesday outside the Tennessee Department of Transportation Management Center in Chattanooga. The governor had just come from visiting with workers inside the plant Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 7, 2015.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee is investing $8 million in a new Rural Economic Development Fund to help the state's smaller counties develop "transformative economic development strategies" to capitalize on the growing economy.

The program, which was unveiled Tuesday at the 62nd annual Governor's Conference on Economic and Community Development, will pay for rural counties to get industrial and commercial sites "shovel ready" for development and will provide grants to help local tourism programs, small town redevelopment and high-speed broadband.

State officials hope the program can bring more of the prosperity and jobs being developed in the state's biggest cities to rural areas of the Volunteer State.

photo Sep 6, 2013 - During a Times Free Press editorial board, Randy Boyd, special adviser for higher education, speaks to reporters and editors about a new "Drive to 55" initiative started by Gov. Bill Haslam's administration.

In the most recent unemployment report for counties in Tennessee, highest jobless rates in August were all in small rural counties, including Hancock County at 10.7 percent, Henderson County at 9.9 percent, Lauderdale County at 9.3 percent and Scott County at 9.2 percent. Employment growth has been fastest in Tennessee - and the jobless rate lowest in August - in the state's biggest metropolitan areas.

The Rural Economic Development Fund will provide an initial $6 million for site development grants for communities to get sites prepared for business to immediately develop as part of the state's existing Select Tennessee Site Certification program.

Another $1 million in grants will go toward enhancing tourism sites in rural communities with another $600,000 for additional ThreeStar community grants including a Main Street Business Incubator program for downtown business districts.

The Rural Economic Development Fund will also provide $250,000 in funding for a statewide survey of broadband capacity in rural Tennessee.

"Tennessee has embraced real change in our approach to workforce readiness with programs like the Tennessee Promise, and these new initiatives will help build capacity in rural areas and get them ready for investment and economic success," Gov. Bill Haslam said in a statement.

Officials say this represents a renewed focus on rural development, which includes the appointment of Amy Blaylock New as the department's first assistant commissioner for rural development. The department also organized a statewide Rural Development Task Force.

Randy Boyd, commissioner for Economic and Community Development, said the additional state funds targeted for rural counties "will pay off for decades, helping generations of rural Tennesseans see that their communities reach full economic potential."

Earlier this year, officials say, Boyd and New embarked on listening tours of rural counties, meeting with elected officials, business and civic leaders across the state on the opportunities and challenges facing rural communities.

New said the programs the fund helps create are directly tied to feedback the department received during the listening tours.

"Our department decided to double down on rural economic development earlier this year," she said. "The Rural Economic Development Fund will help communities stretch their resources to make sure we have asset-based investment strategies in rural Tennessee. This fund will reinforce the exceptional work and investment by our local partners to prepare for the future economic growth."

Last month the department also launched a new marketing campaign for the Memphis Regional Megasite, a state-owned 4,100-acre industrial site in rural West Tennessee.

Funding for the new grant and marketing programs come from one-time revenues in the department's current budget.