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Published:  September 24, 2014
USDA grant opens door for small business development
Courtesy The Herald Leader
PARTICIPATING IN A CHECK PRESENTATION for an $80,000 USDA grant are (from left): Mayor MarkU.S. Department of Agriculture Georgia Director Quinton Robinson knows where Ben Hill County is.  He’s been dealing with Community Development Director Cam Jordan for many years of successfully improving housing in Fitzgerald. Robinson was in town last Wednesday to participate in a check presentation ceremony for an $80,000 grant to Ben Hill County to help fund a new test program for agricultural businesses and farm owners.

ROBINSON TOLD A large group gathered at the Eco Ballroom that proven cooperation with the City of Fitzgerald and Ben Hill County were key in him deciding to fund the local efforts. “I’m elated to be getting this done,” Robinson said. “This is economic development — taking idle land and clearing up legal titles.” Without clear titles to farm land, borrowing for crop production is virtually impossible.

The USDA grant will kickstart local efforts to clear titles to “heir property” — property that has not been able to be claimed by subsequent generations because of the absence of a will or other legal document. County Manager Frank Feild noted, “A verbal promise has no weight. The intention must be written down. Most of out blighted property is stranded property. (McIntosh County, another rural south Georgia county, has $23 million in stranded property — property for which no one is paying taxes).” Cam Jordan, the City’s Community Development Director, notes that about 10% of all property is stranded property.

A big partner in the effort to clear local heir property has been, and will continue to be, the Georgia Appleseed Project. The non-profit is committed to assisting with pro bono (free) legal assistance for those having stranded heir property. A previous effort to clear property here by Georgia Appleseed was supported by Community Bank ($5,000), Colony Bank ($5,000) and PlantersFirst ($500).

PART OF THE USDA grant will fund technology for telecommunication. For instance a farmer with stranded property in Ben Hill County will have technology available to communicate with lawyers at Georgia Appleseed in Atlanta. During the presentation, a video was shown showcasing earlier successful efforts here in Ben Hill County to assist local citizens in getting clear titles to mostly family land.

“Nobody has been able to get a handle on this problem until Appleseed came along,” Cam Jordan said.

Mayor Mark Massee and County Commission Chairman Philip Jay both praised the efforts of Robinson and Georgia Appleseed Executive Director Sharon Hill in bringing both the legal expertise and the funding to bear on a critical issue affecting property owners across the region. Unlocking stranded property can put productive property back on tax rolls and allow property owners to make use of the full potential of their property.

THE USDA GRANT IS nominally to Ben Hill County, but there are other partners involved in opening up agricultural land for full use in the County. McSeed, another non-profit, conducts public outreach and education and helps small farm businesses transition to emerging crop opportunities, such as olives, blueberries and pomegranates. Development Authority of Ben Hill County will coordinate technology between partners and provide office support. The Fitzgerald-Ben Hill Land Bank will support emerging crop demonstration projects. The City of Fitzgerald will assist Ben Hill County in the project and County Agent Blake Crabtree will support research and planning and education initiatives while providing technical assistance.

County Manager Frank Feild stated after the meeting that the USDA is talking about partnering with us on other projects. They have great confidence in the City and County to deliver on what we promise. “When we are successful, they are successful,” Feild noted.