Writer: Margaret Blanchard
Walking around downtown Baxley, Georgia, Keri Orvin shares some of the community’s ideas for the mostly vacant storefronts: An outdoor café in a breezy alleyway, a welcome center and event space in a former department store, a niche restaurant in a turnkey space — investments to breathe life into this small rural town.
“It’s all about the mindset,” said Orvin, executive director of the Development Authority of Appling County, on a tour of her hometown. “The vision is there, but there has to be community involvement and interest.”
That’s where she hopes PROPEL (Planning Rural Opportunities for Prosperity and Economic Leadership) will make a difference. The program is led by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia and funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. The program also received a generous contribution from the UGA Foundation. It is structured to provide rural communities like Baxley the tools and know-how to plan for their economic futures.
“The goal is knowledge transfer, where each community will have the skills and resources to do the work,” said Greg Wilson, a faculty member at the institute. “Our role is to coach and provide resources so that they could build the systems necessary to support their own economic and workforce development strategies.”
Wilson led a two-day PROPEL kickoff and workshop earlier this year that brought together Orvin and her colleagues from Appling County, along with representatives from Grady, Pulaski, and Washington counties and the Lower Chattahoochee Council of Governments (made up of Clay, Quitman, Randolph and Stewart counties). It was an opportunity for the communities, the first selected for PROPEL, to network and receive training from UGA Public Service and Outreach faculty and professionals like Sharon Liggett with the Archway Partnership.
“Workshops like this provide time for communities to contemplate questions that they may have never been asked, such as ‘what’s your vision for the future?’ It’s our goal to help them sit with those questions and come up with a viable action plan,” Liggett said.
Over the next two years, PROPEL participants will work through a six-step model focusing on economic development, data analysis, strategic planning, community engagement and vision setting. Coaches from the UGA Institute of Government and Archway Partnership will work closely to keep the communities on track. Faculty from other UGA Public Service and Outreach units, the J.W. Fanning Institute of Leadership and the Small Business Development Center, are available to provide expertise in small business, leadership development and community engagement.
The collaborative nature of the work makes it a great example of how the UGA Institute of Government is supporting community and economic development as part of the university’s threefold teaching, research and service mission, said Rob Gordon, institute director.
“PROPEL highlights the expertise, training and partnerships we are known for,” Gordon said. “We look forward to working with these communities and providing the tools and inspiration to build realistic pathways to success.”
PROPEL communities will focus on leveraging strengths such as existing industries, agritourism, downtowns, and arts and recreation to address their unique needs. The idea is to map out existing and complementary initiatives and identify gaps. The end goal is to create and retain healthy infrastructure, economic stability and quality of life.
“PROPEL will be a game changer for workforce and economic development in rural Georgia,” said Jennifer Frum, vice president for UGA Public Service and Outreach. “By helping communities use data to drive decisions today, UGA is empowering them to chart their own economic outcomes in the future.”
The first step for Orvin and the Appling County team is to engage the community. Gathering feedback and listening — especially to young people — will guide their work moving forward. The timing is ideal as the city is in the final stages of developing a master plan they can use to drive downtown revitalization.
“PROPEL’s overarching goal will help us connect so many functions that impact our community — from economic development to community outreach,” Orvin said. “There are so many people interested in helping us, but we don’t necessarily work with them regularly. It will be exciting to see everyone come together.”