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 Rural Georgia

Georgia: Making Small Business a Big Priority

By Beth Braswell

Joey Johnson carried his dream of owning a produce company to his local bank in Mount Vernon, Ga.  “When I asked for money, they asked for a three-year business plan,” Johnson remembers. “I was a sales and marketing guy, and I knew a lot about selling vegetables, but not how to write a plan.” 

Like Johnson, most aspiring business owners have a passion but are lacking resources for the follow-through. The state of Georgia is trying to remedy that deficit with the Entrepreneur Friendly (EF) Program launched in 2004. Counties create customized programs to help small business develop and thrive.  That program is paying dividends. Larger metro areas of Georgia already are known for their entrepreneurial energy, but the rural areas have latched onto this program as an opportunity to grow their communities in a way that works for them.  For example, Miller County designed an arts incubator for "artrepreneurs" (artists) and Coffee County revitalized an industrial park to better serve entrepreneurs.

Back to the produce story: The bank told Johnson about David Yarbrough, Enterprise Facilitator for Toombs, Tattnal and Montgomery counties, and said he could help write a business plan for free.  Johnson says Yarbrough did more than assist with the plan, he “helped us understand how to be business owners. We knew nothing about liability insurance or workers comp.  He showed us how to increase our profit margins without charging more.  We’ve gone into this venture with our eyes wide open.”

Elbert County’s EF Program is led by Anna Grant Jones.  In a highly impoverished area where the major industry is granite, Jones says that jobs are few and far between. “It’s important for locals to be inspired to start a business knowing that they have a support system to turn to,” she says. One of her county’s success stories is JKI Fabrications.

Jeff Wright, president of JKI, grew up in Elberton, Ga., in his dad’s automotive shop.  Now, he’s opened his own metal-working shop making conveyor systems and custom turntables; growing his company to 10 employees. Accessing a loan through the One Georgia Loan Program, he expanded his building and his capabilities. Jones says her role as the single point of contact for small business allows her to find whatever resource companies need, and that includes helping them access qualified funds and new clients.

In many rural areas, while job availability is an issue, the long-term challenge is to keep the youth from leaving. In Fannin County, a program has been created to build the next generation of community leaders and business owners. Vision Quest annually helps 20 high school juniors to envision themselves as business owners and leaders of the Fannin County community who will drive growth and improvement.

The community camaraderie and energy behind the EF Program attracts new blood, too. Kevin Kilner had planned to move from Buffalo, N.Y., to Jacksonville, Fla., to open his strategic planning business.  However, a chance meeting with Christine Davis in nearby Camden County, Ga., (estimated population 46,000) changed his mind.  “She threw open so many doors for me,” says Kilner as he described Davis.  “I got all my demographic and market info from Chris and recrafted my strategy for business in Camden County.”  The rest of the story is about success.

Sixty-three counties in Georgia are EF certified with about 80 more in the pipeline. It takes about one year for a county to meet all of the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDED) criteria. By 2008, GDED estimates that more than two-thirds of Georgia's counties will have integrated their individualized Entrepreneur Friendly strategies into their economic development plans.

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