I miss people; there, I said it. And as I reflect on the last few months, I am thankful for getting back to a safe, cautiously managed, version of in-person meetings and events. The Georgia Chamber hosted its first in-person and virtual event since March with the annual Rural Prosperity Summit presented by AT&T, the Georgia Community Foundation, Georgia EMC, and Georgia Realtors. Our fourth annual event was held in Tifton, not far from my hometown of Fitzgerald, and the turnout was nothing short of amazing. We saw record virtual attendance and welcomed all the in-person attendees we were capable of safely hosting in accordance with CDC guidelines. Media coverage exceeded 23-million impressions and we witnessed a social media deluge of posts, key takeaways and photos highlighting the event’s activities. Content and speakers drove engagement as we unpacked over a dozen issues related to rural resiliency. From leadership, education, equality and infrastructure to healthcare, industrial recruitment, investment and more, the message was clear. Rural communities are facing the same challenges, not just in Georgia, but around the nation. Yet, we are better prepared, today, to turn those challenges into opportunities.
I was recently interviewed for Georgia Focus, a radio program broadcasted across 170 stations statewide, via Georgia News Network. In talking with John Clark, I shared with him some of the key takeaways from this year’s program.
First, rural communities must drive the narrative about the virtues of their towns and not let stereotypes be detractors. We must find what our communities are known for, what they do well, and then tell everyone about it. We must remember to market to our own children as well. The more that the younger generations know about their communities, the more likely they are to settle down in them and build a prosperous life. We have seen story after story of rural renewal and those small victories add up to make a big difference.
Second, rural communities, not just metro areas, must embrace the opportunity to build bridges toward racial unity and equality. Intentional listening and sincerity must be the approach. When it comes to equality and inclusion, it is time to act. We must be willing to have the hard conversations, tearful dialogue, and strength to push through the awkward, but respectful, confrontations that will unite our communities and engage a spirit of genuine inclusion. The Chamber will tackle this topic at our annual Diversity & Inclusion Summit, presented by AT&T and Global Payments, on November 18 at the Georgia International Convention Center, or online.
Third, leaders must work collaboratively and stop viewing their communities in isolation. Communities can accomplish much more economic success by working across borders rather than pretending that dollars and residents stop at the city or county lines. Elected officials can and should provide the example for quality leadership that steps beyond the traditional way of executing and embraces regionalism and collaboration for a better future. By working together, citizens are provided with effective, responsible representation positioned to accomplish great things for the community.
Finally, when it comes to education and employment opportunities in our rural towns, we cannot allow poverty or lack of connectivity to deter anyone’s opportunity for success. Broadband continues to be one of the most prominent challenges facing rural communities today. Infrastructure and access to supply chains are essential to raising the bar for jobs and economic growth in rural areas. Additional government resources are not only necessary, but critical, to effectively deliver this infrastructure where it is needed most. Our upcoming virtual Freight & Logistics event on November 10 will host elected leaders to discuss this challenge and provide an update from the Georgia Commission for Freight and Logistics.
As we enter 2021, and hopefully a post-COVID economic recovery, we cannot forget those lessons we have learned in 2020 and the ways in which COVID-19 brought to the forefront of everyone’s mind the existing challenges facing rural America. These are not, nor have they been, new challenges. But national crisis has brought them to a national stage, and now it is time for us to respond. I encourage our elected leaders, business owners and citizens to take note of the issues identified and expressed through this recent rural-focused Summit. And, together, let us work to reimagine a better and more resilient rural America to come. To learn more and to engage with our Center for Rural Prosperity go to www.gachamber.com/tifton.