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Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee celebrated the economic improvement of four rural counties in the state on Wednesday, which he said has led to the Volunteer State having its lowest number of distressed counties since before the 2008-2009 Great Recession.

The number of Tennessee counties regarded as economically distressed and among the bottom 10% of economic performers of all U.S. counties fell from 15 to 11 in the past year. The East Tennessee counties of Morgan and Fentress, along with Jackson County in Middle Tennessee and McNairy County in West Tennessee, are no longer considered "distressed" under the Appalachian Regional Commission guidelines. Those counties are still considered at risk, however.

"McNairy, Jackson, Fentress and Morgan counties have shown tremendous improvement and we are proud to support continued efforts for greater stability and prosperity," Lee said. "As these counties improve beyond distressed status this means more residents have access to quality jobs and economic security and we are committed to efforts that sustain this progress."

Tennessee is working to reduce the number of distressed counties down to 10 by 2025 fiscal year. Currently, there are 11 counties still on the list of distressed counties, including Bledsoe and Grundy counties north of Chattanooga. Elsewhere in East Tennessee, three counties on the Kentucky border in East Tennessee — Clay County north of Cookeville, Scott County north of Oak Ridge and Hancock county in upper East Tennessee — also were on the distressed list. Cocke County east of Knoxville is also a distressed county.

"In 2013, Tennessee had 26 counties classified as distressed, and we are pleased to announce a drop to a 13-year low," said Bob Rolfe, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.. "Today's news reaffirms our long-term rural strategy, which is built around a full suite of community development grants and enhanced efforts to support job creation in our most economically vulnerable communities."

Only one Tennessee county made it into the highest tier of "attainment" in the United States. Williamson County in Middle Tennessee is the state's richest county and home to cities of Franklin and Brentwood along with both Gov. Lee and U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn.

Across its service territory, the Appalachian Regional Commission said the number of distressed counties fell this year to 78 from 80 last year. The ARC has provided special funds for the region's poorest counties since 1983.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340

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Contributed by the Appalachian Regional Commission / Map shows the 78 distressed counties in Appalachia, including Bledsoe and Grundy counties in Southeast Tennessee.
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