After years of appearing on the "distressed counties" list for Appalachian communities, Grundy County finally climbed from the ranks of the economically worst 10% of counties in Tennessee.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday announced the number of distressed counties in the state has dropped to eight, the fewest in Tennessee history and Grundy's first exit from the Appalachian Regional Commission's annual list that goes back to 2007. The reduction marks what Lee described as a significant milestone in his administration's mission to accelerate the transformation of rural Tennessee.
"In 2019, we began an administration-wide mission to expand opportunity for Tennesseans in rural areas, and our strategic workforce and infrastructure investments have resulted in a historic reduction of our state's distressed counties," Lee said Tuesday in a news release. "What happens in rural Tennessee matters to all of Tennessee. As Tennessee experiences unprecedented economic growth and job creation, we'll continue our work to prioritize rural communities so that Tennesseans in every county can thrive."
According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, Grundy and Morgan counties advanced out of the distressed designation this year, reducing the total number of distressed counties from 15 to eight since 2019. The commission invested $21.7 million in Tennessee, requiring $27.2 million in matching funds in 56 projects, according to commission data. There was an additional $351 million in private investments and 4,760 jobs created or retained.
Tennessee's eight distressed counties now include Bledsoe, Clay, Cocke, Hancock, Hardeman, Lake, Perry and Scott, according to the commission.
Grundy was upgraded to an at-risk county for fiscal year 2024. It is among 27 at-risk Tennessee counties — defined by the commission as counties at risk of becoming economically distressed, ranking between the worst 10% and 25% of the nation's counties.
For Grundy County, the road of economic distress has lasted more than 50 years, longer than the commission's list has existed, according to Grundy County Mayor Michael Brady. The last of Grundy's mines shuttered in the 1990s, according to the Grundy County Historical Society.
"It's a huge accomplishment. I'm not sure the date that Grundy County went into a distressed status, but I'm assuming it was the latter part of the 1970s," Brady said Tuesday in a phone interview. "The community ought to be proud.
"How do you change the landscape of a mining community to a thriving economic community? It's not rocket science. You have to identify your strengths, build on those strengths and have community buy-in on what you're trying to accomplish," Brady continued. "It's not been the work of any one individual, it has been the partnership that we have with the state, our community partners, everybody pulling on the rope together to flip that page in Grundy County's past."
The county's tax base still isn't what it should be, and with the delisting from the distressed counties list, Grundy's match on grants for projects will swell, Brady said. A grant that had a 10% match on a project for a distressed county might be 25% for a county not on that list, so the county must be prepared to take on a heftier burden, he said.
Lee has been on rural counties' side, the mayor said.
"Gov. Lee has been good to Grundy County — our grants, projects, technical assistance, everything," Brady said. "I think he has been good to rural Tennessee."
But now more challenges lie ahead with less help, Brady said.
"Before, you've been thrown into the water, but you had help. Now, you have to swim," he said. "You're at a place where you've set the tone for the economy of the community, and you're now pushing it forward, having the funds to push that forward. Infrastructure is vital for that."
Grundy put in hard work, according to the state Department of Economic and Community Development.
"They have been very active in trying to move out of their distressed county designation," department spokesperson Jennifer McEachern said Tuesday in an email, "and we're proud to see that they have achieved that goal."
In a interview Tuesday in Nashville, Lee said the move off the list for Grundy was a positive for its residents.
"When they come off the list, it means the economic opportunities in those communities are better," Lee said. "But obviously, the people benefit when they come off of that list because of the opportunities."
Lee credits his administration's efforts since he assumed office in 2019 by prioritizing significant workforce, education and infrastructure investments, job creation and a greater quality of life, the release states. With those investments, Lee said he has secured 213 economic development projects in rural counties that have netted more than $16 billion in capital investment and 33,000 new job commitments since 2019.
"Elevating rural Tennessee is one of our top priorities, and by providing a pro-business climate for Tennessee companies to succeed, they are in turn providing high-quality job opportunities for citizens across the state," state Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Stuart McWhorter said in the release. "While today's announcement is proof that we have made significant strides in reducing the number of distressed counties in Tennessee, we are committed to the eight remaining counties to help improve their economic status designations in the years ahead."
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this report.