UGA program helps build stronger, more united south Georgia
Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories about UGA and economic development in rural Georgia.
Melissa Dark and Elena Carne own small businesses more than 75 miles apart in rural south Georgia.
The two have shared information through a regional program, led by UGA's J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, a public service and outreach unit.
In Fitzgerald, a town of about 9,000 people, Dark was struggling to find enough skilled workers to expand Greener Grass Handmade, an online company that sells children's products that Dark designs and are made by hand.
In Americus, Carne wanted to expand her market and grow her company, Tepuy Activewear.
The women met through Jason Dunn, executive director of the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Development Authority.
They have since shared resources, best practices and ideas for their businesses.
"We support each other in our businesses and discuss challenges," she said. "But the only way that has been possible is because we were brought together through Locate South GeorgiaLEADS."
Locate South GeorgiaLEADS is a regional leadership program Fanning created that includes the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and economic development representatives from 21 counties in south Georgia.
Economic development in rural areas, where cities tend to be small and spread out, can be challenging because those communities often have smaller workforces and fewer resources.
When communities pool their resources, they can be more successful at expanding existing businesses and adding new ones, said Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.
"One of the things we have learned very well...is that the communities that work better together get things done, and you see that all over rural Georgia," Wilson said. "Companies don't look at the political boundaries, so having leaders willing to look past those barriers is the difference in bringing economic development to rural areas."
Locate South GeorgiaLEADS was created to remove those barriers. Locate South GeorgiaLEADS combines the Fanning Institute's research-based leadership development curriculum with site visits and issue awareness, focusing on topics such as agriculture, education, infrastructure, workforce development and entrepreneurship in south Georgia.
"Through Locate South GeorgiaLEADS, we are building a network of leaders who are increasingly engaged in their communities and in south Georgia as a whole," said Mary Beth Bass, executive director of the One Sumter Economic Development Foundation and Locate South GeorgiaLEADS program coordinator. "By completing this program, these business and civic leaders are better able to help us articulate the assets of the region and speak to the challenges we face."
Since Locate South GeorgiaLEADS began, the program has inspired companies to make moves toward greater success.
"This program is enhancing the skills and knowledge of community members to think beyond traditional boundaries and collaborate on approaching problems and opportunities facing all of these counties," Fanning Institute Director Matt Bishop said. "Developing leaders with a regional perspective is vital to rural development, and the Fanning Institute is committed to supporting this effort."
In its first year, 2016-2017, Locate South GeorgiaLEADS graduated 32 participants, and 35 are enrolled in this year's class.
"Having 21 counties identify high-potential leaders, create a cooperative process and build those relationships is one of the most important things in promoting regional prosperity," said Sean McMillan, director of the UGA Office of Economic Development in Atlanta. "It all boils down to relationships and leadership in economic development."
Partnerships and relationships created through Locate South GeorgiaLEADS are key to helping the whole region move forward, Dunn said.
"The obstacles we're facing don't stop at county lines," Dunn said. "Our challenges are the same, yet by working together as a regional force, we can address those challenges and further enhance south Georgia as a competitive part of the state to do business."
For an expanded version of this story, visit news.uga.edu on Jan. 16.