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McDuffie part of pilot project aimed at coordinating efforts of agencies

ATLANTA - A pilot project targeting rural counties surrounding Augusta aims to coordinate the efforts of every state agency on community goals.

Community Affairs Commissioner Mike Beatty says by integrating what each state agency does, the test called Communities of Opportunity will focus government aid in ways not tried in the past.

"It's not a program. It's an initiative," he said. "It's a launching pad for all of the programs already out there."

Mr. Beatty, a former Athens legislator, is relentlessly cheerful and hopeful.

"I believe there are acres of diamonds in rural Georgia," he says often.

But that optimism isn't shared by most residents of the targeted counties, Burke, Jefferson, Glascock, McDuffie, Lincoln, Wilkes, Taliaferro, Hancock, Warren, Washington, and Jenkins.

In a survey of 401 residents in the 11 rural counties conducted by the University of Georgia in the spring of 2006, only 44 percent said they believe their communities have a bright economic future. Just 27 percent predicted their children would want to return after completing their education.

The survey had a 5 percent margin of error.

UGA analysts who studied the region issued a blunt assessment in May for the Georgia Rural Development Council.

"All of the GRDC research concludes that rural communities in Georgia are characterized as weak and distressed on virtually every measure of human capital vitality, fiscal capacity, technology and innovation, healthcare availability and access, and workforce housing," said the report.

So the analysts investigated why past efforts and millions of government dollars have failed to eliminate persistent poverty in the region. They blamed imperfect public policy which created a culture of dependency on government handouts, over reliance on cheap labor to lure factory jobs which often went to workers commuting in from neighboring counties and uncoordinated government aid.

Thomson Administrator Don Powers offered a similar hope.

"I'm encouraged that we're part of a pilot program that, hopefully, will remove roadblocks between agencies," he said.

Mr. Powers said his city has been effective at using state aid dollars, but is nevertheless willing to participate in the new initiative.

Web posted on Thursday, September 27, 2007

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