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Improving the economies of towns like Brownsville, Tenn., and other surrounding West Tennessee communities is the focus of a new project by the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development.

Beginning in Brownsville next week, UT and ECD will host a series of forums across the state to gather information on rural development issues.

“The forums provide an opportunity for local leaders to discuss the economic strengths and challenges facing their communities,” Mary Taylor, assistant vice president of UT’s Institute for Public Service, said.

“Solutions that work for a town like Huntsville in East Tennessee may not work for West Tennessee towns like Brownsville or Bolivar or Dyersburg,” Taylor said. “Helping current firms and growing new businesses here takes a keen sense of the community to understand its unique economy.”

On Jan. 21, a two-hour forum will be conducted in Brownsville at the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center with leaders of local government, chambers of commerce, agribusiness, conservation groups and other community organizations.

The session is part of the 2005 WestStar Leadership Development program sponsored by the University of Tennessee at Martin.

“West Tennessee is ripe with growth opportunities in any number of areas, including agriculture-based businesses and tourism,” Charles Norman, dean of UT Extension, said. “By working together we can help local communities and businesses grow and prosper.”

Information gathered at this forum and the other forums to be held in Middle and East Tennessee will be used by UT and ECD, and shared with the Southern Growth Policies Board to help develop its 2005 report on the future of the South.

The Southern Growth Policies Board is a non-partisan public policy organization based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., that works to strengthen the South’s economy and quality of life, said Joe Barker, assistant ECD commissioner.

“In addition to helping all of us to better focus our efforts, sharing the information with the Southern Growth Policies Board helps assure that its work is focused on real issues of importance to our state and region,” Barker said.

The Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development leads the state’s efforts to foster higher-paying and better skilled jobs by recruiting new industries and helping existing businesses grow, he said.
Economic development initiatives such as Three-Star and Tennessee Main Street programs work directly with both urban and rural communities to help them prepare for sustainable growth and development, Barker said.

Both the UT Institute for Public Service and UT Extension serve Tennesseans by linking university expertise with community and workplace needs, Taylor said.