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By Frank Daniels, Tennessee Press Association

For many Tennesseans the pain and financial loss of the 2008 recession has faded.

The state’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the Southeast, at 3.4 percent in March. Household income and the state’s Gross Domestic Product are at their highest points, and Tennessee continues to attract “high quality” jobs. (“High quality” jobs are those that pay higher than the county median wage.)

But economic prosperity has been concentrated around Tennessee’s metropolitan areas, and nearly half of the state’s 95 counties are classified as “Distressed” (15 counties) or “At-Risk” (29), based on economic performance indicators tracked by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). ARC uses the three-year average unemployment rate, per capita market income, and the poverty rate to determine the economic status of the nation’s counties. ARC categorizes U.S. counties in the bottom 10 percent as distressed.

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Tennessee’s economic boom illustrates that a rising tide does not necessarily lift all boats, and the state’s political leaders have an opportunity to address that.

The 124-member newspapers of the Tennessee Press Association are working together to present a forum for the major candidates in the gubernatorial and Senate races. Each month we are asking candidates to briefly outline their position on a significant challenge facing Tennessee. The issue this month is rural Tennessee.

 

Distressed counties

After the 2008 recession the number of distressed counties in Tennessee began rising and reached a high of 26 in 2013, up from 13 in 2010, according the state’s Transparent Tennessee website.

In response to the rapid rise in distressed counties, Gov. Bill Haslam formed the Governor’s Rural Task Force in 2015. The 78-page task force report made a number of recommendations on economic development, education, and improved services in rural communities. The report cited two essential areas of need: rural communities needed to build the ability to take advantage of the available resources to achieve established goals; and rural communities needed to plan and design places that promote the area’s overall wellbeing.

Americans have been steadily migrating to metropolitan areas since the end of World War II for jobs and increased opportunities that concentrated populations offer. The metropolitan migration has accelerated in Tennessee since the 2008 recession with about half of the jobs created in the state occurring in just one metro area – Nashville.

As people have flocked to Nashville, and the state’s other metro areas, they have brought both economic opportunity and challenges. Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools are struggling with the cost and complexity of increased student populations and the increasing diversity of that population. Nashville’s traffic woes will not get relief from a proposed $5.4 billion transit plan that voters rejected by a nearly two-to-one margin on May 1.

The bloom may not be off the metropolitan area bloom, but Nashville’s struggles with growth show that investing in rural and small-town Tennessee could help both those communities and our urban areas.

 

Small-town renaissance

The Governor’s Rural Task Force report shows how complex the task of growing rural prosperity will be, and how government is just a small part of any solution.

There are renaissance stories of how small towns are making progress, and at the center of those stories if often a contrarian entrepreneur who has an emotional attachment to the town.

The story of Darla Moore and Lake City, S.C., in The New York Times or of Stephen Hill and Kinston, N.C., in Business North Carolina magazine are examples of passionate visionaries who are transforming almost forgotten towns.

The people we elect in 2018 will have a chance to foster those kinds of stories in Tennessee.

Frank Daniels is a writer living in Clarksville. A former editor, columnist and business executive, he is a member of the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame. You reach him at fdanielsiii@mac.com.