Tenn. county working to build on stimulus job gain

AP News
Posted: Dec 29, 2009 3:29 PM

Perry County officials are looking for ways to make job gains more permanent after short-term federal stimulus money helped cut unemployment in the rural Tennessee county from the nation's highest rate in May to 16.4 percent in November.

In May, Gov. Phil Bredesen announced a plan to bring 300 government and private sector jobs to Perry County by using funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other federal funds through September 2010.

The county's unemployment rate was 25 percent at the time, the nation's highest, according to Perry County Mayor John Carroll. The figure was down to 16.4 percent in November, the latest tally. The state's overall unemployment rate in November was 10.3 percent, down from 10.5 percent the month before, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

"We still have a high unemployment rate, but it would be significantly higher had Governor Bredesen's recovery program not been implemented," Carroll said.

Carroll is hoping to maintain his county's unemployment rate _ or possibly lower it _ when the stimulus money stops. The mayor, along with other county and state officials, met Dec. 17 with an economic development specialist who outlined ways the county can boost its economy in the long term.

The main recommendation from Mark Williams, president of Columbia, S.C.-based Strategic Development Group, is to take a "diversified approach" and not be so industry oriented.

Nearly half of Perry County's work force of 3,000 worked in the auto industry in 2000. Today, that's down to less than 5 percent.

In just the last year, two of the largest employers in the county have shed close to 800 auto parts jobs. Both made parts for General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Corp., Chrysler LLC, Nissan Motor Co., Honda Motor Co. and others.

One recommendation from Williams is for the county to expand its broadband capabilities to create so-called "virtual jobs," which would allow people living in rural areas to use high-speed Internet to work from their homes and contract with "virtually anybody in the world."

Carroll said the county realizes the economic importance of broadband expansion and has begun that process.

"It ... opens up new opportunities for people in the community to have gainful employment," he said. "That could be from their home or it could be from either a call center or some other type of Internet-based work."

State officials announced last week that Tennessee will receive $1.8 million in federal funding for broadband mapping and planning in an effort to increase the availability and use of high-speed Internet service in the state.

"Expanding access to high-speed Internet services across our state is key to economic development in today's environment," Bredesen said. "About half the state's geographic area is underserved for broadband, representing about 10 percent of Tennesseans."

Williams also suggested the county turn to some of its assets to draw businesses, such as its natural springs, which he said have "great potential for not only distillers, but other beverage makers of many sorts."

Carroll said other counties can also benefit from some of his recommendations. When the governor announced his plan in Perry County, he said he might consider similar plans in other Tennessee counties with high unemployment rates.

This month, Bredesen announced the state would use federal stimulus money to create 175 jobs in Lauderdale County, which has an unemployment rate of 18.6 percent, currently the highest in the state. That funding will also end in September 2010.

"If they have got something that's of value to investors, it's just a question of taking their time ... to figure out what it is," Williams said. "It may not be exactly the same as Perry County, but we think it can be done."