The University of Georgia Carl Vinson Institute of Government has expanded its award-winning rural development program to three additional Georgia counties. Crisp, Emanuel, and Marion counties are the newest PROPEL communities.

PROPEL, or Planning Rural Opportunities for Prosperity and Economic Leadership, provides resources to rural communities to support economic and community development strategies. Working with UGA faculty, staff, and students, key stakeholders identify and execute a long-term vision for the community’s economic future. Launched in 2021, the program is made possible with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and additional resources from the UGA Foundation. The UGA Institute of Government, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach, leads the program.

Steering committee members from each of the three new participating counties recently attended a day-long workshop at the University of Georgia to learn about the PROPEL process and lay the groundwork for their communities’ involvement in the program.

At the workshop, UGA faculty gave an overview of the PROPEL process and presented training on data exploration and public engagement. Each community’s team discussed next steps and mapped out preliminary meeting schedules.

“Through PROPEL, we have a successful track record of assisting local stakeholders as they develop and implement plans for their communities,” said Greg Wilson, the UGA Institute of Government faculty member who leads the program. “We look forward to working alongside our partners in Crisp, Emanuel and Marion counties over the next two years.”

Scattered across the southern half of Georgia, the three communities have unique challenges and goals.

Crisp County counts among its assets Lake Blackshear, Georgia Veterans State Park, two higher education institutions, rail access, interstate highway access and agriculture. Its team hopes to strengthen partnerships and capitalize on the community’s potential by connecting with UGA as part of the PROPEL program.

“We all know each other, and we all work together, but we’re looking for UGA and PROPEL to take our communication to the next level,” said Tim Powers, senior vice president and regional president of Planters First Bank.

Emanuel County in southeast Georgia is home to Swainsboro, known as the “Crossroads of the South” due to the intersection of U.S. highways 1 and 80. Its committee members emphasized the need for managing growth, especially with the Hyundai electric vehicle assembly plant under construction in neighboring Bryan County.

“We’re hoping for an outside perspective of what Swainsboro can offer. We like our rural setting, quality of life and the open land we have, but we also want growth. That’s a tough balance to achieve, and that’s why we’re working with UGA through PROPEL,” Ken Warnock, Emanuel County Chamber of Commerce CEO, said.

Marion County, located in west Georgia just south of Columbus, has a large nature conservancy in the northern part of the county near Fort Moore. Members of its committee talked about making the most of their county’s strengths, such as promoting tourism.

“We’re here because we want to help explore our positives and expand on them to make ourselves a better community,” said Jay Wells, a Buena Vista attorney and committee member.

The three counties make up the third group of PROPEL communities in Georgia. The first group (Appling, Grady, Pulaski, and Washington counties, plus the Lower Chattahoochee Joint Development Authority, which includes Clay, Quitman, Randolph, and Stewart counties), started in 2022 and have completed the program. A second round of counties—Baldwin, Ben Hill and Burke—began the program in 2023.

PROPEL was awarded top honors in the Place category at the 2023 University Economic Development Association (UEDA) Awards of Excellence.