June 24, 2024

Jessica Pope
Communications and Media Relations Coordinator

VSU Supports Community-Led Change with Rural Development Institute

Nearly 30 economic development, city, county, and community leaders from Charlton County, Coffee County, Early County, Jenkins County, Lee County, and Washington County were selected to participate in Valdosta State University's 2024 Rural Development Institute.

vsu33650rdi-_1.jpgDarrell Moore (left), director of Valdosta State University's Center for South Georgia Regional Impact, says rural communities and their citizens are integral to Georgia's economy, culture, and future. This is his third year facilitating VSU's Rural Development Institute and helping communities across Georgia develop an action plan for rural prosperity.

VALDOSTA — Valdosta State University’s Center for South Georgia Regional Impact recently kicked off its third annual Rural Development Institute (RDI) with a three-day Summit designed to help communities across Georgia develop an action plan for rural prosperity.

Nearly 30 economic development, city, county, and community leaders from Charlton County, Coffee County, Early County, Jenkins County, Lee County, and Washington County were selected to participate in VSU’s 2024 RDI.

“Rural communities and their citizens are integral to Georgia’s economy, culture, and future,” said Darrell Moore, director of VSU’s Center for South Georgia Regional Impact. “Through the RDI, VSU is working to build capacity that encourages the growth and development of rural communities without sacrificing their distinctive rural character.”

Before coming to the Summit, teams representing each of the participating communities were tasked with using a readiness index to conduct a self-assessment of their recruitment, education, infrastructure, leadership, demographics, and quality of life.

During the Summit, the teams analyzed the results of their self-assessment and worked with mentors to identify their unique opportunities and challenges, connect with experts and other available resources, build a support network, and develop a roadmap for economic vitality.  

Moore said the RDI Summit offered a program that emphasized experiential learning with a heavy dose of discussion, debate, and teamwork.

Highlights included content experts, professional developers, and consultants delivering interactive and engaging sessions on the elected official’s role in economic development, the current economic environment and future projections, building the future workforce through pathways and partnerships, the impact of artificial intelligence, downtown redevelopment strategies, retail as a catalyst for economic growth, tourism opportunities to generate wealth, and more.

After each session the teams “worked with a mentor to reflect on what they had just learned and then talk about how they could take some of those ideas back and implement them in their community,” Moore said.

Summit mentors represented various organizations — Electric Cities of Georgia, Georgia Department of Economic Development, Association County Commissioners of Georgia, One Valdosta-Lowndes, Georgia Power Company, Hodge Consulting Services, and the Georgia Municipal Association.

“By fostering a network of passionate and capable leaders, RDI creates a supportive ecosystem where ideas can flourish, partnerships can form, and resources can be mobilized,” said Scott Berta, RDI mentor and industrial development manager for Electric Cities of Georgia LLC. “This collaborative spirit is essential for long-term success and resilience in rural development efforts.

“I am incredibly excited about the future of the group I worked with this year from Charlton County. Their enthusiasm, dedication, and creativity were truly inspiring. They have embraced the insights gained from RDI with open minds and hearts and are already translating these into actionable plans that promise to make a tangible difference in our community.”

Featured Summit speakers came from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Georgia Department of Economic Development; the Georgia Department of Community Affairs; the Georgia Municipal Association; Association County Commissioners of Georgia; University of Washington iSchool; West AlabamaWorks of Tuscaloosa, Alabama; the Downtown Development Authority of Bainbridge; Retail Stategies; Hodge Consulting Services LLC; the Office of Governor Brian P. Kemp; and the Wetumpka, Alabama, Chamber of Commerce.

Each team left the Summit with a prioritized list of projects and initiatives designed to build a better future for the people who live, work, play, and visit in their communities. Through experiential learning initiatives at VSU, the Center for Regional Impact will use university faculty, staff, and students to help each community implement at least one of their projects in the coming months.

“Our leadership wants to create an environment that provides opportunities to retain and attract younger generations to Early County,” said Susanne Reynolds, director of the Development Authority of Early County. “One of the projects we plan to focus on within the next year is a Downtown Youth Advisory Program, which will involve Early County juniors and seniors in the Downtown Blakely revitalization process. To successfully create the program, clear goals will need to be established, along with engaging students through partnerships with the Early County School System and Southwest Georgia Academy. Students will learn about community development while playing an active role in creating a thriving future downtown.”

Based on feedback and comments from participants, presenters, and mentors, VSU’s Rural Development Institute Summit continues to be a tremendous success.

“The RDI was one of the best programs I have ever attended,” said Brandy Underwood, executive director of the Jenkins County Chamber of Commerce and Jenkins County Development Authority. “It inspired me immensely, offering fresh perspectives and innovative ideas for helping our community grow and develop in the years ahead. I am leaving with a renewed sense of purpose and a toolbox full of strategies to drive positive change and foster sustainable development in our community.”

VSU’s Rural Development Institute is an opportunity for the university to continue supporting the work of the Governor’s Rural Strike Team and provide a positive impact on Georgia’s rural communities.

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