Chris Clark

“In order to keep Georgia’s economy thriving, there must be a keen focus on the strength of our rural communities,” said Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber.

TIFTON, Ga. — The third annual Rural Prosperity Summit, hosted by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, was held in Tifton on Oct. 1-2.

Approximately 500 business leaders, community advocates and state elected officials, along with speakers who discussed topics centered around Georgia’s rural communities, attended the two-day event, which was held at the University of Georgia’s Tifton Campus Conference Center.

“In order to keep Georgia’s economy thriving, there must be a keen focus on the strength of our rural communities,” said Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber. “By partnering with local chambers, business leaders and legislators, we can move the needle on bringing prosperity to these vital areas of our state.

“The Georgia Chamber’s Rural Prosperity Summit in Tifton brought together these elements for the third year in a row with nearly 500 attendees from across the state to discuss and plan for the challenges we face and to create a rural renaissance in Georgia.”

Clark, who opened the conference, said that there are nine global trends that are impacting rural Georgia and urged attendees to be aware of these issues and work towards finding solutions rather than dismissing them: a population boom and associated rapid urbanization; market disruptions; digital transformations; artificial intelligence and massive automation; global connectedness; environmental degradation; expanding inequality; a war for talent; and political disruption.

“These are nine global trends that are impacting our communities and, quite frankly, pose an even greater challenge for our rural communities,” Clark said. “All these things we have to develop new strategies with as local leaders.”

Clark said that Georgia is expected to add approximately 1.5 million more people in the next 10 years, but that most of those people will not be flocking to rural areas.

“During that same period, 74 Georgia counties will lose population,” he said. “Eighty-four rural Georgia counties will lose jobs, unless we have different strategies. The world is going to look a lot different. We’ve moved beyond our agrarian past. In 2030, two-thirds of everyone in the world will live in a city.”

Clark said that the economy will change and be very different than what it looks like today, but that there are opportunities that come with those changes and rural areas have to have strategies to compete with urban areas.

Clark said that business and information moving into the digital realm, global connectedness and global trade, artificial intelligence and increasing automation will change the economy and how people do business.

“Here’s the scary statistic: 39 million US jobs will be lost over the next 10 years to automation,” he said. “Unfortunately, a quarter of those are going to be in rural America.”

He said that while jobs in food service, manufacturing, offices and customer service are trending towards automation, new jobs are expected to be created that demand higher levels of skills.

“We are globally connected,” he said. “A million Georgians are employed because of global trade.”

Clark said that because they are globally connected, things that happen in other parts of the country and other parts of the world have a direct effect on Georgians.

“Our ag products are not going out to the same markets they used to,” he said. “So when we get in these trade wars, we’re hurting Georgia jobs. We’re hurting Georgia farmers.”

Rapid population growth also has a negative effect on the environment, which Clark said Georgia needs to meet head on.

“I don’t care if you’re Republican, Democrat, where you are, the fact is there is environmental degradation,” Clark said. “There is climate change. It is happening every day, and it’s going to impact us. We need to think about, particularly those of us in rural Georgia, that grew up here and that love rural Georgia. Our environment is really a touchstone of our culture, whether it’s hunting and fishing, our forests, our farmlands.”

He said that rural Georgia has an opportunity with regards to tourism and feeding the expected population boom, but that communities need to preserve the environment to do that.

Clark said that economic inequality and poverty are other trends that need to be addressed.

“Globally, poverty is going away, is the general thought” he said. “In Georgia, 21 percent of everyone that lives in rural Georgia today lives in poverty. Think about that number for a minute. Almost a quarter of your neighbors live in poverty. Even scarier, almost 30 percent of all the children in rural Georgia live in poverty today. If that kid’s in poverty, he doesn’t have the food to nourish himself at night. He doesn’t have the resources, he doesn’t have access to healthcare. Do you think he’s going to grow up to be a good member of society? No, the odds are stacked against him. But I would challenge you… we have to have strategies in place to move people out of poverty and into prosperity. There’s a workforce waiting for us if we can figure it out.”

Clark also said that while thinking about how to move people out of poverty, shoring up the middle class must also be a priority.

“We have a decrease and decline in the middle class in this country and in Georgia,” he said. “It used to be, if you looked at all the families in America, 60 percent were middle income. Today that number is only 50 percent. So as the middle class shrinks, so do their opportunities for higher education, so does their spending, everything else that’s out there… How are we going to shore up the middle class? How are we going to make them successful? That might mean as businesses we have to pay higher wages. That means government, for our government officials, we might have to pay higher wages, so they can actually have a living wage and be successful and thrive.”

Clark said that businesses are going to increasingly fight over attracting talent and rural Georgia will need to be competitive in that regard.

“In a world where 65 percent of the jobs of the future don’t exist today, but we’re still training kids like I was trained 100 years ago, that model is not going to work,” he said. “Get rid of ‘reading, writing and ‘rithmatic.’”

He said that kids need to be taught skills such as cultural intelligence, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, change management and creativity.

“We know that these are global things that we have to deal with, global trends that are impacting all of us, all of our communities,” he said. “Here are the eight things that I think we need to really focus on, and we’re going to touch on these over the next couple of days.”

To maintain its political capital, Clark said Georgia needs to: ensure every resident is counted in the upcoming census; have an ‘entrepreneur ecosystem’ to create jobs that can grow and compete globally; develop capital and invest in research and development; rethink education and focus on skills and life-long learning; improve long-term connectivity; protect natural resources that make rural Georgia unique; economic mobility; and develop a strategy for recruiting and retaining talent.

“The US government can make laws,” Clark said. “The state can continue to pass bills, but it really comes down to making a decision locally, on your own. Are you going to sit back and watch this economy change and blow by you and this community suffer, or are you going to say, no, we’re going do the hard work now and take advantage of the opportunities that exist out there instead of bemoaning where we’ve been and what could come?”

Attendees also heard from legislators who discussed the work that is being done in Washington to improve opportunities for Georgians in rural communities.

 U.S. Congressman Austin Scott discussed Georgia’s defense infrastructure, stating in a press release, “The economic impact should not be understated when it comes to military bases in Georgia and the importance they have on our economic growth.”

Topics such as prosperity within the arts community, education and manufacturing were discussed during the breakout sessions where attendees contributed to conversations that impact Georgia’s rural development.

The upcoming 2020 Census was also discussed as notable speakers encouraged attendees and all Georgians to participate. Other topics included the opioid epidemic, defense industry and non-profit benefit to prosperity.

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