Writer: Margaret Blanchard
A rural economic development program led by the University of Georgia Institute of Government has been nationally recognized and Appling County is a prime example of its ongoing impact.
PROPEL, or Planning Rural Opportunities for Prosperity and Economic Leadership, was awarded top honors in the Place category at the 2023 University Economic Development Association (UEDA) Awards of Excellence. The Institute of Government is a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach.
The award recognizes PROPEL’s economic impact on Georgia communities and specifically, the numerous ways in which UGA contributes to making attractive, economically competitive communities.
In Appling County, the program has helped the community jump-start economic development efforts through downtown revitalization and youth leadership development.
“The program as a whole has given us the tools, resources and a plan to implement these changes far into the future. We’ve made some amazing strides forward, and it’s in large part because of PROPEL,” said Keri Orvin, city manager of Baxley, the county seat.
Keri Orvin stands in front of city hall in Baxley.
Launched in 2022, PROPEL provides rural communities with resources 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. The program is made possible with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and additional resources from the UGA Foundation.
PROPEL efforts in Appling County have focused on downtown Baxley, where a refreshed mural welcomes visitors and new banners and planters brighten up the main thoroughfare. A state tax credit program has encouraged entrepreneurs to renovate historic buildings and open new businesses that include a bridal shop, dress boutique and diner.
“In a short time, Baxley and Appling County have made tremendous progress and we’re thrilled with their hard work. It shows the impact programs like PROPEL can have on building more resilient Georgia communities and economies,” said Greg Wilson, UGA Institute of Government faculty who leads the program.
PROPEL also provides communities access to expertise and resources from different areas of the Institute of Government and UGA Public Service and Outreach overall.
Over the summer, Garrison Taylor, a graduate student in the UGA College of Environment and Design, worked with Appling County to envision changes to downtown Baxley through the Georgia Downtown Renaissance Fellows program. The Downtown Renaissance Fellowship is supported by the Georgia Municipal Association and the Georgia Cities Foundation.
Garrison Taylor, a graduate student in the UGA College of Environment and Design, worked with Appling County to envision changes to downtown Baxley through the Georgia Downtown Renaissance Fellows program.
With input from community leaders and citizens, Taylor created renderings of suggested changes to enhance downtown parking areas, alleyways and parks. The resulting full-color plan—provided at no cost to Baxley thanks to their involvement in PROPEL—is a valuable tool to share with potential businesses.
“Now we have a vision that provides a tremendous marketing opportunity; downtown is our heartbeat, and we look forward to continuing to move forward and bring it back to life,” Orvin said.
PROPEL is also helping train community leaders like J.P. Ewaldsen, chairman of the Downtown Development Authority and owner of South Georgia Insurance Associates. Ewaldsen credits his experience on the PROPEL steering committee with opening his eyes to how local government works.
“I’ve learned about government entities and how they all tie together and piggyback off each other. It’s helped me tremendously be a better citizen to explain the process to other people in the community so they can understand that this is a long-term goal, not just putting some paint on a wall,” he said.
Another long-term goal for Appling County is to enhance youth leadership and workforce development. Like many communities in Georgia and across the U.S., the availability of a qualified workforce is a top issue for economic development in the area.
“Appling County has done an excellent job on developing workforce and training pathways that align with their local economy. Their new Southern Pines College and Career Academy is a testament to their commitment and a sign of momentum,” Wilson said.
The Baxley-Appling County Chamber of Commerce is expanding that vision through another UGA Public Service and Outreach effort, the 2023 Innovations in Community Leadership Initiative (ICLI). Led by the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, the program will help create a Junior Chamber Council to engage young adults in community, government and business decisions and activities.
Ewaldsen said such UGA resources and expertise inspire him to cultivate a community where his children will one day want to return to and settle down.
“It’s been really good to see things happening—that it’s not just a fantasy or a dream. You can make the community a better place where you want to stay and be a part of rather than just keeping it to yourself,” he said.