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Mary Beth Bass: A serious, sustained and aggressive effort

Rural Georgia has been getting a lot of looks lately. In fact, as I write this column, the Georgia House Rural Development Council is meeting in Toccoa to discuss the weighty topics of how to spur economic development, increase job growth, and facilitate greater support to small businesses in areas of the State that are simply not growing as fast as our larger sister cities in metropolitan areas. “Praise the Lord!” was my response — and that of many others who have been working in Georgia’s beloved small communities, often our hidden gems.
We are well represented on the Council by our very own state Rep. Ed Rynders — and South Georgia’s voice is strongly echoed with representation from Representatives Jay Powell, Sam Watson, Patty Bentley, Clay Pirkle, Penny Houston, Robert Dickey, Jason Shaw, among others.
The Georgia General Assembly is not the only one who has taken a keen eye to the challenges faced by the communities that make up much of the heart and sheer determination of the great state of Georgia.  The Georgia Chamber of Commerce opened its first office outside our state Capital in over 100 years — that’s right, over a century — just last month in Tifton. Why did they do it? They heard loudly and repeatedly from business leaders across Georgia that rural communities needed help — we needed the emphasis and focus of the larger areas in order to spur job growth — and, we have a lot to offer. We are the backbone of agriculture, Georgia’s number one industry, and we have a voice that needs to be heard!
I congratulate and thank each of the men and women, regardless of their respective institutions, for investing in the issues of rural Georgia — healthcare, broadband, economic development, and the list continues.
The Rural Development Council will continue to meet throughout the year in rural communities around our state. They started in Tifton just last month, and will continue to meet in Thomasville, Bainbridge, Ellijay, Dalton, Metter, Darien, Waycross, Albany, Warm Springs and Manchester in the months to come in preparation for next year’s legislative session. Various topics will be discussed and experts from around Georgia will weigh in on what is needed to addresses issues of rural importance. All meetings are open to the public, and I encourage you to attend when they are nearby, or you can watch Live Stream video during or after the fact — Google it; it’s worth your time. Our own economic development professional, Barbara Grogan is in Toccoa as we speak, attending, listening and learning on our behalf. Other economic development professionals from around Georgia are making the journey to make sure our voices are heard, interests represented, and that our legislators know we value their efforts and that it matters. It’s critical.
So, why am I writing about this in the column dedicated to One Sumter? 1) Because it matters, but 2) I was able to attend the first meeting of the Council in Tifton, where they focused on the topic of broadband. I’ve been asked why broadband matters to Sumter County, and where are we, One Sumter, in our efforts to bring high-speed fiber connectivity to our community. Let me start by saying this — it is not easy. Period. It would have already happened here if that were true. But, primarily, this is one of those economic development issues that will take a serious, sustained and aggressive effort.
As technology has evolved, the capability and out-and-out demand for communication is mind-boggling.  We all know, everyone has to be connected to someone, something, anything it seems, at all times. Well, here’s the deal: if we are going to compete economically, and grow residentially, we have to be able to provide the services that those from other areas have come to expect — and not only expect, take for granted. It is as essential today has running water, electric light, paved roads — at least in terms of economic growth in a global economy. It’s essential for healthcare, telemedicine, education, business and industry, and yes, even government. Whether we like it or not, and I am not the biggest fan personally of all of this social media, that is the world we live in today. With healthcare relying more and more on telemedicine and students needing access to online learning for their education, we have to have it. Others will pass us by if we can’t figure this thing out.
It’s commonly known that when it rains here, you can’t process a credit card or a debit card at some local establishments. We laugh it off, work around it, find another way to pay — but it’s not really all that laughable. Imagine coming here from a German company, or Chinese industry, looking to locate your business here — all the while looking at other communities in other states, other countries even — and your overnight in Sumter County reveals you cannot use your form of payment or access the Internet in your hotel if there’s a storm outside. What impression does that make?
All of that aside, One Sumter has been diligently pursuing broadband feasibility over the last 18 months.  We’ve conducted a feasibility study, looked at the cost to build out infrastructure, we know our “take rates,” what it will take to make a strong business case for a company to come in and run fiber, and we are talking with potential providers. It’s a long process; it’s an expensive process. It’s why you created One Sumter — to look at the issues that others could not do on behalf of the entire community.
I will say this, we are close to answers — we have more than scratched the surface. But like anything worth doing, it’s worth doing right and it takes times. Since we started this process, technology has evolved and continues to do so. Our legislators are looking at ways to incentivize broadband connectivity to rural Georgia — because it’s EXPENSIVE. Making a business case for it is difficult.  Georgia isn’t always the easiest state to work in telecommunications compared to some of our neighbors. Taxing structures, pole rental fees, permits at the local level, and right-of-way access all play into making these decisions. We have to look at the whole system. It’s simply not as easy as “getting it done.”
Technological advances are making it more viable every day, but we must be vigilant. Interesting models exist of public-private investment making it work in small rural communities around Georgia and in other states. The trick is finding the right fit for us — one we can make viable and accessible. We are working on it, it does matter, and we haven’t forgotten. We are very close. Stay with us as we continue our efforts to make Sumter County more economically viable. The sustained effort, and yes, even the patience, will be worth the wait.

Mary Beth Bass is executive director One Sumter Economic Development Foundation Inc., Americus.