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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Jaycie Helms decorates a sidewalk sign at Cedar and Rose Boutique in Summerville, Ga. on Tuesday, July 5, 2022. The boutique opened about three months ago.

One county in Northwest Georgia and two in Southeast Tennessee qualify as distressed, according to research from the federal government's Appalachian Regional Commission, part of a downward economic trend.

"To classify counties in Appalachia into a specific designation, we examine three key economic indicators. The first is a three-year average unemployment rate, the second is per capita market income and the third is poverty rate," Janiene Bohannon, director of communications for the commission, said in an email.

Bledsoe and Grundy counties in Tennessee and Chattooga County in Georgia are in the lowest category for those three economic indicators, placing them in the bottom 10% of the nation's counties, according to the commission. The distress designation allows those counties to receive economic development grants, for which the commission provides 80% to match the county's 20% payout.

In a report released at the end of June, the area's transitional counties include Hamilton, Bradley, Polk and McMinn in Tennessee and Dade, Walker, Catoosa and Whitfield in Georgia. The counties of Murray in Georgia and Meigs, Monroe and Rhea in Tennessee are considered at-risk.

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Three area counties rated as economically 'distressed'

Transitional counties are those transitioning between strong and weak economies, according to the commission. They make up the largest economic status designation. Transitional counties rank between the worst 25% and the best 25% of the nation's counties.

At-risk counties are those at risk of becoming economically distressed, the commission's website says. They rank between the worst 10% and 25% of the nation's counties.

(READ MORE: Tennessee restores online job listings, will pay late unemployment benefits after cyberattack idled computer network)

From last fiscal year, 14 additional counties across Appalachia fell into the at-risk designation. while one more became considered distressed. Bohannon attributes the negative shift to blowback from the pandemic.

Running from north Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia across 13 states up to New York, 82 of the 423 counties designated as Appalachia are distressed. The highest concentration of distressed counties are in Kentucky, West Virginia and Mississippi.

Only four Appalachia counties have achieved attainment — meaning it has economic indicators proportionate with the rest of the nation. Ten counties are considered competitive, 218 as transitional, and 109 at-risk.

Created by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the commission has invested about $4.5 billion in approximately 28,000 economic development projects across the region. Those investments have attracted more than $10 billion in matching funds, according to the commission.

(READ MORE: Number of distressed Tennessee counties reduced due to economic improvement)

Bledsoe County Mayor Gregg Ridley said his county recently received a sewer infrastructure grant, allowing an international poultry breeder named Aviagen to open a new $35 million feed mill in the county. The mill will eventually bring 260 jobs to the area, including up to 36 at the mill, according to Aviagen.

"I think the state has done an excellent job over the last eight years helping rural distressed counties," Ridley said. "And they have, in their grant applications, lowered the match that the county has to come up with, and they've given us extra points for being distressed. So that has been a really big help in allowing us to secure funds from the state and federal government that will help us not be distressed in the future."

Ridley said Bledsoe County has been well served by the commission, but the county still has trouble paying its part of the matching program. Though the county has received multiple grants over the years, some projects are out of reach because of the lack of ongoing funding, he said.

"Unless the project is going to generate future revenue, we have no means to sustain the program over future years," Ridley said.

As an example, he said programs for school resource officers and ambulance services benefited from initial funding from other sources, and, he said, Bledsoe County would love to have a full-time Chamber of Commerce employee that could attract industry and grow the county's tourism sector if ongoing funding was available from the commission.

(READ MORE: Number of distressed counties in Appalachia shrinks to lowest since 2008)

Blake Elsberry, Chattooga County's sole commissioner, has partnered with the commission in the past, and he said county leadership is studying the potential for more projects. A grant to rehabilitate a historic theater in Summerville was submitted last year, he said.

"We want to make it the economic hub of downtown. It's not going to be just a theater, but a meeting space," Elsberry said.

He said county leadership wants to house the Chamber of Commerce there, too, so it can be a one-stop shop for businesses interested in moving to the county.

Coming soon, he said, Chattooga County is adding a standalone emergency room, new Sheriff's Office and training simulator, and a $10 million broadband expansion.

A lot of what the county needs, Elsberry said, doesn't line up with the opportunities available.

"I need money for paving roads. I need money to fix county bridges," Elsberry said, adding that Chattooga also needs funds for law enforcement and mental health care. "I don't have like you'd have in Chattanooga with electrical cars, electric charging stations. That's not rural Georgia, that's not rural Tennessee. It doesn't benefit us. There's a lot of things (grant opportunities) that don't apply to us."

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.

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