Supporting Tennessee’s rural citizens has been a top priority of mine since I signed my very first executive order. Executive Order 1 required each state department to examine its impact on our rural communities and make recommendations on how to better serve rural Tennesseans. As a result, we have implemented workforce development programs, criminal justice reform, programs to assist those battling addiction and changes to our economic development incentives to better drive investment into underserved communities.
Through partnership with the Appalachian Regional Commission, we track our state’s rural progress in part by our number of distressed counties, which are those that rank in the bottom 10 percent of the nation economically. We have cut our number of distressed counties by more than half recently — from 19 distressed counties four years ago to nine today. For the 52 Tennessee counties in the ARC footprint, that number has improved from 11 to six distressed counties.
The ARC, made up of 420 counties in 13 states and 25 million people, has a mission to innovate, partner and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth. Tennessee is partnering with the ARC on projects ranging from the development of 50 miles of bike trails in Cocke County to increase rural tourism to improving an industrial park in McMinn County that will help recruit new companies.
The COVID-19 pandemic reinforced the need for broadband connectivity across all of Tennessee, and the ARC has been a tremendous partner in the deployment of broadband. I encourage our broadband providers to leverage both state and federal funding sources to support the construction of broadband infrastructure to connect our remaining unserved Tennesseans. This strategy will be particularly effective in reaching our most rural and high-cost areas to serve. In a recent example, one broadband provider utilized both ARC and state broadband grant funds to build service to more than 1,100 previously unserved homes and businesses in one of Tennessee’s struggling rural counties. This partnership with the ARC significantly increases the impact of Tennessee’s state grant dollars. In total, the ARC has awarded more than $13 million to connect 13,000 unserved Tennessee homes and 800 businesses with high-speed internet.
The best way to help a community move out of economic distress is to ensure that the workforce has the skills needed for the jobs of the future. I created the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education program to expand access to vocational and technical training and give students an opportunity to discover quality career paths and gain skills needed for those careers. Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology partner with community colleges, K-12 schools, economic development agencies, and employers to develop programs that meet local needs. We are currently accepting applications for the second round of funding. These projects will highlight and expand upon ARC investments in our TCATs to expand culinary arts, construction trades, automotive technology programs, and many others.
The ARC and Tennessee have also partnered to assist with workforce development for those coming out of our jails and prisons. A top focus of my administration is criminal justice reform, and an important part of that is ensuring that people who have served their sentences have good jobs that allow them to support themselves and their families. The ARC has funded projects in five Tennessee counties that train workers and give them work experience while they are incarcerated. The money they make goes toward paying court costs, catching up on fees, and starting savings accounts to help with expenses like transportation and housing.
The Appalachian Regional Commission is a great example of how federal, state, and local governments can work together to better support our communities. I deeply appreciate this partnership that continues to benefit our citizens in numerous ways, and I look forward to future opportunities to collaborate with my fellow Governors and ARC Chairwoman Gayle Manchin to strengthen this region.