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Town Hall meeting in Thomson addresses needs of rural communities

Leaders and citizens of McDuffie County used the opportunity to voice their opinions to state officials at a Town Hall meeting Monday night at the Depot. The meeting was part of an initiative by the Georgia Rural Development Council, the University of Georgia's Fanning Institute and the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

According to Matt Bishop, a service faculty member of the Fanning Institute, the purpose of the meeting, called Communities of Opportunity, was to address the question of how well the public investment of tax dollars has been transformed into "the kinds of community and economic vitality that we had hoped for."

While the focus of the project is to address persistent poverty in Georgia - Mr. Bishop said 91 of the 159 counties in the state persistently remain on the poverty level - Mr. Bishop pointed out that McDuffie County has remained economically level through the years.

"I would argue that Thomson-McDuffie County has done a good job at converting state resources into positive use," he said.

Mr. Bishop said letters of invitation were sent out to all elected officials in the city and county, as well as those in development. The public was invited through the media. Only three elected officials were present - School Board Member Virginia Bradshaw, City Councilman Kenneth Usry, and Tax Commissioner Sandra Whitaker.

Approximately 35 people attended the meeting, where they were divided into three groups. Each group brainstormed answers to questions, and typed them onto a laptop that projected onto a large screen, which Mr. Bishop used to facilitate discussion.

"Our goal here tonight is to hear your needs and concerns on the local level in a broad sense," he said. "So I ask that you be candid, open and honest about your responses."

Only a few questions were asked, but many responses were given. The first question was "What do you value most about your community? What would you like to keep/preserve/not go away?"

The 53 answers varied from cooperation among leaders and the sense of pride in the community to the good education system, Augusta Tech facility, hospital and airport.

"Those are rare in rural Georgia nowadays," Mr. Bishop said.

"The second question was "What do you consider to be your community's weaknesses?" Again the responses covered a wide variety, including lack of support for the arts, lack of affordable, good-quality housing, high teen pregnancy and school drop-out rates, and lack of jobs with decent wages. There were 48 answers in all.

"At least there were more answers to the (question addressing the) good than the (question addressing the) bad. That's a good thing," said Kelly Evans, the county information technology director.

The third, fourth and fifth questions asked the group to provide what they thought were solutions to the problems listed in question two, and to offer advice to the Governor, the Department of Community Affairs Commission, and/or the Communities of Opportunity.

"I can tell you right now, money is not going to solve any of the problems we have in McDuffie County," said Joyce Blevins, the director of the East Central Georgia Workforce Development Center in Thomson. "It takes people caring about people and parents caring about their children."

Although the meeting seemed to consist of people getting things off their chests, the participants felt good about how they spent the evening.

"It was one of the better town hall meetings I've been to. I wish more people would have come out for it," said Fred Guerrant, the County and City Planning and Zoning Director. "More than anything, I hope something constructive will come out of all this."

Web posted on Thursday, October 19, 2006

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