Growing up in south Georgia, Roy Reeves witnessed the changes that occurred in many rural communities. Family farms sold out to agricultural conglomerates or to developers who parceled the land for new homes or businesses. Commercial developments that sprouted along highway bypasses threatened the mom and pop businesses that kept the quaint downtowns alive and bustling.
That didn’t happen in Moultrie, Reeves’ hometown. As agriculture changed, so did the county. Tobacco and peaches gave way to cabbage, zucchini, eggplant and bell peppers. City and county leaders worked to attract new industries to the area to replace the ones that left. They kept government offices in the city center, restoring historic structures and building new facilities that blend in with the existing architecture, instead of moving them to cheaper sites on the outskirts of town.
“At some point, Moultrie could have gone the way of other small towns,” says Reeves, who returned to Moultrie to raise his family after graduating from UGA. “The natural progression would have been to lose population and economic force.
In 2004, the leadership of Moultrie faced a new challenge. Poultry giant Sanderson Farms announced a new processing plant for the county, a promise of more than 1,400 new jobs.
It was a cause for celebration but also concern. The new industry would attract new people and increase demands for services like transportation, child care and housing. This time, the challenge might be too big for the leadership of Moultrie to handle alone.
At roughly the same time Sanderson was announcing its plans for Moultrie, the University of Georgia was developing an outreach program to better serve the state and its residents. The Archway Partnership Project, a collaboration between the Office of the Vice President for Public Service and Outreach and the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Cooperative Extension Service, is designed to link the resources of the university to the economic development needs of Georgia’s communities. The project runs like agricultural extension has for decades, with a point person in the county who serves as a liaison between the community and UGA, says Scott Brown, Colquitt County extension coordinator.
Moultrie’s situation made it ideal for a two-year pilot project. By July 1, 2005, Dennis Epps was in Moultrie as the UGA project coordinator, and community leaders were moving forward on their most pressing concerns.
Over the next two years, Epps would call on faculty, staff and students from more than 13 of UGA’s colleges and departments to lend their expertise to an issue facing Colquitt County.
“You could see right at the beginning how excited they were,” Mel Garber, UGA’s director of strategic initiatives, says of the Colquitt County residents involved in the project. “This puts the university in a very good light in the community.”
Growth and change had begun in Moultrie before Sanderson announced it was coming to town. In recent years, retirees from the north had discovered the genteel Southern town, which boasts the same mild winter climate as the Florida panhandle, but at a more affordable cost.
National Beef, another major employer in the area, had expanded, attracting new residents who needed homes, health care and child care. More Hispanic families came in, attracted by work in the fields and local factories.
Sanderson “pushed it over the edge,” Moultrie city manager Bob Hopkins says. “It gave a new perspective to what was happening.”
A top priority was expanding the city’s wastewater capacity. Without that, there could be no new industry or new housing. With help from UGA’s Engineering Outreach, Fanning Institute and Carl Vinson Institute of Government, Moultrie leaders put together a referendum for a special local option sales tax to pay for the treatment plant as well as other city and county improvements. The referendum passed with 90 percent of the vote.
“That’s not the norm,” Hopkins says. “Everybody understands where we’re trying to go and what it’s going to take to get there.”
Another critical issue was a county-wide zoning plan, which Colquitt County residents long had fought because they feared it would restrict the future use of their land. But the plan was necessary to control growth and maintain the county’s agricultural economy.
The county commission appointed a citizens committee to study the zoning, with Epps facilitating discussion. As a neutral party, he was able to bring the sides together and reach an agreement.
“It’s historic that we now have zoning in place,” Colquitt County Manager Jack D. Byrd Jr. says. “When it first started, it was a war.”
The partnership benefits the university as well as the community. Faculty from public health, pharmacy, and family and consumer sciences applied their research to real situations and real people. Christine Todd, a professor of child and family development, was conducting a study of community child care needs when Epps called to see if she wanted to use Moultrie as one of her study sites.
It was a perfect match. Todd needed more data from a rural community, and her findings helped Moultrie identify their specific needs: affordable child care, after school programs and child care options for parents who work night shifts.
“About one in 10 families said a parent was prevented from working because of [a lack of] child care,” she says. “That’s linked to economic development.”
UGA students had several opportunities to put their classroom education into practice.
Julien Derocher, a graduate student in the College of Environment and Design, helped develop the entranceway signs for the new industrial park, where Sanderson Farms is located. Students in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication worked with Chamber of Commerce officials and other Archway participants to develop a marketing plan for the town.
As of this spring, 23 students had participated in service learning projects in Moultrie, with 24 projects completed and 12 still under way.
“We think this is going to be the delivery model of the future,” says Art Dunning, UGA vice president for public service and outreach. “Our responsibility to the people of this state is to be out and about.”
There were skeptics when the project first was announced. But Epps made it clear from the start that UGA wasn’t coming in to tell the town what to do.
“I said, ‘We’re coming here to help you understand yourselves and identify your strengths and weaknesses,’” Epps says. “I don’t come with a little black book that says this is what’s good for Moultrie.”
Leaders from across socioeconomic and racial lines came together, drawn by the promise of a better community. Jim Lowry, president and CEO of Colquitt Regional Medical Center, recognized that the partnership with UGA could help him address the region’s growing health care needs.
“You can accomplish more in a synergistic manner than individually,” Lowry says.
Perhaps the biggest skeptics were low income and minority residents. Epps and Debbie Purvis, a family and consumer sciences extension agent, put members of the Archway executive team through poverty simulations to help them better understand the needs of those populations.
The exercise was very eye-opening, says Jimmy Jeter, chairman of the Moultrie/Colquitt County Development Authority.
“If you can’t afford an automobile you’re going to have difficulty getting to work five miles away,” Jeter says. “Archway brought us together. We all saw a little bigger picture.”
The grassroots nature of the partnership pulled in residents who had not been involved in previous economic development efforts in the town. Myrtis Mulkey-Ndawula sees it firsthand in her work as executive director of the Southwest Georgia Community Action Council and as a member of Moultrie’s poverty task force.
“The critical role Archway has played in it has heightened the awareness of those who need to know. People are thinking about how funding can be accessed to address issues,” Mulkey-Ndawula says. “In talking with people in the community I can see they’re becoming more motivated. They can see things are being done.”
For more information
on the Archway Partnership Project,
go to www.archwaypartnership.uga.edu