Lee touts economic progress in rural areas

Gov. Bill Lee welcomes delegates to a summit on economically distressed counties in Linden on Aug. 13, 2019. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Gov. Bill Lee has made economic development in rural areas one of his top priorities. At a rural summit at Pickwick Lake on Thursday, the governor touted his achievements so far that have included the number of distressed counties dropping from 19 in 2018 to nine today.

Here’s the release from the governor’s office:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced Tennessee has reduced the state’s number of distressed counties to an all-time low as the Lee Administration focuses on targeted interventions for workforce development and infrastructure.

“Early on, we set a goal that we would have less than 10 distressed counties by 2025,” said Gov. Lee. “By focusing on workforce development and infrastructure improvements, we are down to nine counties and will continue working to get remaining counties on the path to prosperity.”

Distressed counties rank among the 10 percent most economically distressed counties in the nation according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.

In the past four years, Tennessee has cut the number of distressed counties in half from 19 in 2018 to nine today. Since Gov. Lee took office, McNairy, Jackson, Fentress, Morgan, Hardeman, and Wayne counties have moved off the distressed list.

In 2019, Gov. Lee’s first Executive Order directed all state executive departments to issue a statement of rural impact and provide recommendations for better serving rural Tennessee. Key workforce and infrastructure interventions include:

• Creating the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) program and the Future Workforce Initiative to expand access to vocational and technical education.
• Investing $79 million to eliminate the 11,400 TCAT waiting list and increasing apprenticeships by more than 30 percent across the state.
• Allocating $100 million for broadband expansion in the FY21 budget which improves educational outcomes in rural communities.

These targeted strategies have resulted in Tennessee securing 132 projects in rural counties with over 23,000 new job commitments and $12.6 billion in capital investment since 2019.

Today, the Governor’s West Tennessee Rural Opportunity Summit was held in Counce, Tenn. The East Tennessee Summit will be held in November in Newport, Tenn. The Governor’s Rural Summit focuses on at-risk and distressed counties by engaging city and county mayors, education and economic leaders, and cabinet members.