Tennessee Tech's Rural Reimagined helps reduce distressed counties to lowest number in state history

Aerial view of the Tennessee Tech campus.

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced this week that the number of distressed counties in the state has reduced to eight, the fewest in Tennessee history - a feat that was made possible in part through the collaboration and support of Tennessee Tech University's Rural Reimagined initiative. Distressed counties rank among the 10 percent most economically distressed counties in the nation. 

Tech launched its Rural Reimagined initiative in 2019 to leverage the full resources of the university to support the flourishing of Tennessee’s rural communities. Today, Rural Reimagined is on the ground in 65 of Tennessee’s rural counties, actively engaged in nine ongoing local tourism projects, and has helped 200 small businesses in the last year alone, always at no cost to them. Meanwhile, Tech students involved with Rural Reimagined have logged a collective 113,000 hours of volunteer service since the initiative began.

Rural Reimagined has actively helped seven distressed counties with plans in place to assist each of the state's remaining distressed counties during the course of fiscal year 2024. The impact of Rural Reimagined is especially pronounced in the Upper Cumberland region that surrounds Tech's campus where, since fiscal year 2019, Fentress, Jackson and Morgan counties have been moved off the distressed counties list and DeKalb, Overton and White counties have improved from "at-risk" to "transitional" counties. 

Tennessee's recently enacted fiscal year 2024 budget allocated $1 million for Rural Reimagined, a nod to its role as an invaluable partner in spurring new ideas and investment in the state's most disadvantaged communities. 

"Tennessee Tech students and faculty believe in our state and want to do their part to ensure its continued success," said Michael Aikens, Ph.D., director of the Center for Rural Innovation at Tech and administrative chair of Rural Reimagined. "We launched Rural Reimagined because we know that Tennessee thrives when every community is afforded opportunities to rise. Our rural counties and towns are rich in talent, opportunity and scenic beauty that deserve to be explored. Rural Reimagined comes alongside these communities and their local businesses with our free services and support to help them put their best foot forward. From tourism branding and marketing campaigns, to research funding, computer literacy and grant support, Rural Reimagined is deeply planted in these communities and committed to their success. We count it a privilege to partner with Governor Lee's administration and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to deliver better outcomes for rural Tennessee." 

Tennessee Tech President Phil Oldham and State Senator Paul Bailey wrote about the work of Rural Reimagined in a recent op-ed for The Tennessean, explaining "Rural Reimagined has plans to expand its reach into all remaining rural counties in the state and to partner with more small businesses in distressed and at-risk counties that need its free services. In each project it takes on, Rural Reimagined offers the talents of one of our state’s greatest exports: Tennessee Tech students." 

Rural Reimagined was also recently profiled on WKRN News 2. Watch the segment here

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