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Rural areas receive economic boost

By Marianne Graves

Dr. Helen B. Miller, president of the Suwannee River League of Cities. - Photo by Marianne Graves

The Suwannee River League of Cities met recently for their Board and Membership Meeting at the Senior Citizens Council of Madison County in Madison to continue their quest to meet needs across the Suwannee River region.

Presiding over the evening was Dr. Helen B. Miller, president of the Suwannee River League of Cities. She introduced Alicia Trawick, a government analyst with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity in Tallahassee, who works with a DEO program that uses local assets as a way to spur economic development for rural communities throughout Florida.

“There’s a real intelligence of the program,” said Trawick. “We are only about five years old. We are learning and changing as we go.” The program is called the Competitive Florida Partnership. Community teams partner with experts who challenge them to set realistic goals to build their economic development vision. “We give them information; we connect them with different agencies that can help them out,” said Trawick, who said that up to $40,000 may fund a community project or $5,000 to $15,000 to do smaller projects. For details, visit

The Competitive Florida Partnership program began in 2013, and in that time, areas that have received the grant to develop their economic strategy include the City of Defuniak Springs, Putnam County, City of Madison, the City of Port St. Joe, the City of Newberry, the Town of White Springs, Desoto County, the City of Webster, the City of Starke, the City of Chiefland, Gadsden County and others.

Fascinating results of each area’s Asset Mapping and Competitive Analysis can be seen on the Competitive Florida website.

A delicious meal was served in the dining hall of the Senior Citizens Center in Madison. -Photo by Marianne Graves

City of Madison Commissioner Ina Thompson credits their city’s consultant, Dr. Helen Miller, with helping them to navigate the Competitive Florida Partnership Grant awarded to Madison in August of 2015. Helen Miller was the mayor of White Springs when she guided the town in 2013 into becoming one of four pilots in the Competitive Florida Partnership Program through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. She has a Ph.D. in Management of Technology and Regional Economics from the University of Texas at Austin.

Alicia Trawick, Florida Competitive Partnership program speaker in Madison. -Photos by Marianne Graves

Danny Graves sang “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River” at the Madison Senior Citizens Center.

The request for applications for the Competitive Florida Partnership Grant begins again this summer.

“We anticipate the deadline to be sometime in June. Competitive Florida is a great program, and one that we are very proud of,” said Erin Gillespie, Director of Communications and External Affairs for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity in Tallahassee. The whole idea of identifying area strengths is important to community conversations that take place during the innovative two-year grant. It’s also just as vital to know the weaknesses present and how that affects businesses and jobs.

Mark Yarick, consultant with Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida in Live Oak, spoke briefly at the Suwannee River League of Cities Board meeting. He stated that financial management is typically a problem.

“Most rural businesses do not keep good financial records, do not understand basic business financial management and, consequently, do not understand how to manage their day-to-day operations from a financial perspective,” said Yarick. Another tendency in rural areas, he says, is what he calls scaling/continuity. “Most rural businesses are generational, family and/or non-employer businesses,” he said. “Rural businesses need to deliberately plan for succession and growth.” He thinks that most rural business owners are happy to earn a decent living and are not interested in growth. “This is not good for their business, the community or their successors, be it family or new owners,” said Yarick.

The bottom line after evaluating the good, the bad and the ugly?

The one question to ask is, “How can you leverage your assets?” asked Alicia Trawick. Engaging a robust network of community and business leaders is part of the genius of the Competitive Florida Partnership. It gets everyone talking about valuing assets that are already in place, what improvements they’d like to see and taking action by working with new partners.