Rural Opportunity Summit Highlights Workforce Development, Drop in Distressed Counties

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This week, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee held the 2023 Governor’s Rural Opportunity Summit, an annual gathering focused on serving at-risk and distressed counties by engaging local leaders to develop innovative solutions to the unique problems they face. The Governor shared his vision for success and commitment to helping rural Tennessee thrive.

“What happens in rural Tennessee matters to all of Tennessee,” said Gov. Lee. “Although rural America has been in decline for decades, rural Tennessee is proving to be the exception, thanks to historic investments in vocational, technical, and agricultural education that are shaping our state’s future workforce. We’ll continue our work to prioritize rural communities so that Tennesseans in every county can thrive.”

When Governor Lee took office in 2019, he began an administration-wide mission to expand opportunity in rural areas. Those efforts have resulted in an historic reduction of distressed counties, reduced to eight, compared to 15 previously.

Notable strategic investments to support rural Tennessee’s success since 2019 include:

Executive Order 1

  • Directing all state departments to issue a statement of rural impact and examine how they are serving rural areas in Tennessee, specifically distressed counties, through Executive Order 1.
  • Requiring departments to provide recommendations for improvements on how to best serve rural communities in a variety of areas, including workforce development, business recruitment, critical infrastructure, education and more.

Workforce Development

  • Prioritizing career and technical education in distressed and at-risk counties through the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) Act, which expanded access to work-based learning, apprenticeship programs and dual enrollment courses for trade and technical programs.
  • Allocating more than $200 million to improve and expand Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCAT) infrastructure across our state, in addition to more than $98 million for the TCAT Enrollment Initiative since 2021 to help reduce waitlist times for students to participate in vocational education programs.

Continued Investments in Rural Tennessee

  • A $3.3 billion investment to implement the Transportation Modernization Act, Tennessee’s new transportation and infrastructure strategy to widen rural interstates and alleviate urban congestion, including $300 million for local highways across Tennessee – without raising taxes or going into debt.
  • $1 billion to complete the TCAT Master Plan to improve 16 existing TCATs, replace seven outdated facilities and build six new TCATs at strategic locations across Tennessee.
  • More than $400 million in tax cuts for Tennessee families and businesses through the Tennessee Works Tax Act, one of the largest tax relief measures in Tennessee history.
  • The Rural Brownfields Investment Act to begin remediation efforts for 175 known brownfield sites, including the creation of a new state-administered grant and technical support program for remediation and economic development of existing brownfields.
  • $350 million in additional funding to local education agencies throughout the TISA and an historic pay raise for teachers, making Tennessee a top-10 state for teacher pay.

These targeted strategies have resulted in Tennessee securing 213 economic development projects in rural counties that have netted more than $16 billion in capital investment and 33,000 new job commitments since 2019.

This year’s Rural Opportunity Summit was held at the Governor’s Residence in Nashville, allowing county leaders a chance to convene and collaborate with the Lee administration. Previous summits have been held in rural counties across Tennessee, including Hardin, Cocke, and Perry counties.

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