This is part of a series of stories about UGA and economic development in rural Georgia.

Melissa Dark and Elena Carné own small businesses more than 75 miles apart in rural south Georgia.

Through a regional program, led by the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development at the University of Georgia, the two have shared information that has resulted in better business practices.

In Fitzgerald, a town of about 9,000 people, Dark was struggling to find enough skilled workers to expand Greener Grass Handmade, an online company that sells children’s products that Dark designs and are made by hand.

In Americus, Carné wanted to expand her market and grow her company, Tepuy Activewear.

The women met through Jason Dunn, executive director of the Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County Development Authority. Dunn already knew Dark, and he had recently learned about Carné during a tour of her company as part of Locate South GeorgiaLEADS. Locate South GeorgiaLEADS is a regional leadership program Fanning created that includes the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and economic development representatives from 21 counties in south Georgia.

Dark “had a demand for more orders and was looking for a better understanding of the next steps to take,” Dunn said. “I immediately thought of Tepuy Activewear in Americus.”
The women have since shared resources, best practices and ideas for their businesses.

“We have encouraged each other in fighting the fight to run and grow our businesses in rural Georgia,” Dark said. “It’s been very beneficial.”

Carné agrees.

“We support each other in our businesses and discuss challenges,” she said. “But the only way that has been possible is because we were brought together through Locate South GeorgiaLEADS.”

Economic development in rural areas, where cities tend to be small and spread out, can be challenging because those communities often have smaller workforces and fewer resources.

When communities pool their resources they can be more successful at expanding existing businesses and adding new ones, said Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

“One of the things we have learned very well over the last 10 years or so in economic development and from working with consultants is that the communities that work better together get things done, and you see that all over rural Georgia,” Wilson said. “Where we are having success is where counties and communities come together and work for the betterment of everybody.”

That requires strong leadership, he said.

“Companies don’t look at the political boundaries, so having leaders willing to look past those barriers is the difference in bringing economic development to rural areas,” Wilson said.

Locate South GeorgiaLEADS was created to remove those barriers.

“From my experience, leadership development is the single most important factor for any community or business enterprise,” said Daryl Ingram, senior vice president of external affairs for Electric Cities of Georgia, the presenting sponsor of Locate South GeorgiaLEADS. “This program provides a foundation for up and coming leaders from both government and the private sector to better understand the regional economic development model and specific roles and responsibilities needed for success to be realized.”

Locate South GeorgiaLEADS combines the Fanning Institute’s research-based leadership development curriculum with site visits and issue awareness, focusing on topics such as agriculture, education, infrastructure, workforce development and entrepreneurship in south Georgia.

“Through Locate South GeorgiaLEADS, we are building a network of leaders who are increasingly engaged in their communities and in south Georgia as a whole,” said Mary Beth Bass, executive director of the One Sumter Economic Development Foundation and Locate South GeorgiaLEADS program coordinator. “By completing this program, these business and civic leaders are better able to help us articulate the assets of the region and speak to the challenges we face.”

Since Locate South GeorgiaLEADS began, the program has inspired companies to make moves toward greater success:

  • South Life Supply Co., a Thomasville business that produces leather goods, jewelry and apparel, created new product lines unique to south Georgia communities and increased its business after making a presentation to members of Locate South GeorgiaLEADS in October; and
  • Dunn, a 2016-2017 Locate South GeorgiaLEADS alumnus, has used connections made through the program to organize a visit by representatives of a Kenyan-based company that is considering making an investment in Fitzgerald-Ben Hill County.

“This program is enhancing the skills and knowledge of community members to think beyond traditional boundaries and collaborate on approaching problems and opportunities facing all of these counties,” Fanning Institute Director Matt Bishop said. “Developing leaders with a regional perspective is vital to rural development, and the Fanning Institute is committed to supporting this effort.”

In its first year, 2016-2017, Locate South GeorgiaLEADS graduated 32 participants, and 35 are enrolled in this year’s class.

Despite only being in its second year, Locate South GeorgiaLEADS stands out as a prime example of regional cooperation and development, said Sean McMillan, director of the UGA Office of Economic Development in Atlanta.

“Having 21 counties identify high-potential leaders, create a cooperative process, and build those relationships is one of the most important things in promoting regional prosperity,” McMillan said. “It all boils down to relationships and leadership in economic development.”

Partnerships and relationships created through Locate South GeorgiaLEADS are key to helping the whole region move forward, Dunn said.

“The obstacles we’re facing don’t stop at county lines,” Dunn said. “Our challenges are the same, yet by working together as a regional force, we can address those challenges and further enhance south Georgia as a competitive part of the state to do business.”

For more than 200 years, the University of Georgia, as the land- and sea-grant institution, has worked throughout the state to create communities with educated citizens, strong civic and business leaders, good infrastructure, a skilled workforce, and amenities that help provide a positive quality of life, all key to attracting new companies and jobs. The University of Georgia continues to be uniquely positioned to boost the economic vitality of the state and increase prosperity for all Georgians.

Writer: Charlie Bauder