MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The man in charge of sparking Tennessee's economy wants to expand broadband access to every corner of the state.
"You can do business anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world today, but you have to be connected and there are lots of parts of our state that are not connected," said Randy Boyd, Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development.
Boyd told the Memphis Rotary Club that no one really knows how much broadband penetration exists in Tennessee.
"Is it 96%? No one knows," Boyd said. "Is it a $30 million problem or a $30 Billion dollar problem," Boyd asked Rotarians.
Boyd said the state of Tennessee is doing a statewide survey on broadband access, a critical element for economic development, especially among entrepreneurs in rural Tennessee.
Gov. Bill Haslam's administration has made improving the economies of rural Tennessee communities a prime focus in 2016. The governor appointed a Deputy Assistant Commissioner for Economic Development, Brooxie Carlton, as well as a task force focused on expanding the economy in rural Tennessee. A major effort will be made this year to help struggling Tennessee counties develop sites where companies can build.
"I go to a lot of communities that don't have any sites," Boyd said. "They're desperate for the jobs, but deep down you know unless they create some sites, we're not going to be able to help."
Boyd said that's why Haslam's proposing the Rural Economic Development Opportunity Act, a $10 million fund that would be used to partner with communities to help develop sites. Boyd said rural counties like Lake, Lauderdale and McNairy in West Tennessee are among 21 counties statewide that rank in the bottom 10% poorest in all the United States.
"You're only as rich as your poorest neighbor," Boyd said.
Boyd ticked off some impressive statistics about Tennessee.
"There are more Tennesseans today than ever in our state's history (Population: 6.60 million) and there are more Tennesseans working today than ever in our state history," Boyd said. "We have more people with some type of post-secondary certificate or degree than ever in state history," the commissioner said, noting Haslam has set a goal for 55% of Tennesseans having accomplished some kind of post-secondary degree or certificate by the year 2025. "Our household income is higher than it's ever been in our state's history; last year we set a new record for highest GDP (gross domestic product) in our state's history," Boyd said.
Boyd said the Haslam administration is working on improving communications between employers and state colleges and universities through a program called LEAP: Labor and Education Alignment Program.
"We've got to decide what skills we're not producing and find out what businesses need," Boyd said.
Before leading the department of Economic and Community Development, Boyd, a Knoxville entrepreneur, served as the Governor's Special Assistant on Higher Education. Boyd noted Tennessee has unprecedented growth among students applying for financial aid, a key indicator of whether a high school senior plans to attend college. Boyd credits Tennessee Promise, the Haslam program that offers Tennessee high school graduates the opportunity to attend community college free of charge.
"We have 24% increase this year in first time, full time enrollment (in community colleges) and overall, at all Tennessee public universities, a 10% increase." Boyd said. The commissioner noted that nationwide, enrollment in public universities is down 1.7%. "We want to be #1 in household income, #1 in unemployment in the Southeast and #1 in educational attainment," Boyd said.