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Community stakeholders, federal partners gather at Rural Partners Network forum in Fulton Co.

Fulton County Judge-Executive Jim Martin speaks at the Pontotoc Community Center during the Rural Partners Network Forum on April 12, 2023.
Derek Operle
Fulton County Judge-Executive Jim Martin speaks at the Pontotoc Community Center during the Rural Partners Network Forum on April 12, 2023.

Fulton leaders and community stakeholders gathered Wednesday to hear how officials and agencies from throughout the federal government can help their community grow through the Rural Partners Network – a Biden administration initiative aimed at accelerating community development in rural areas across the nation.

Launched in 2022, RPN is an “all-of-government program” that connects its member communities directly with federal agencies and officials to help them find resources and funding to create jobs, fund and build infrastructure and support long-term economic stability.

Christine Sorensen is the lead on engagement for the program. She said places like Fulton – where she feels local leadership is engaged and working to move their home forward – are “fertile ground” for community development.

“We're in Fulton County today because of that, because of the work that they've put in to lift up their [community] and really look at the future,” Sorensen said. “This is a place where the Rural Partners Network can go arm-in-arm, possibly get resources to the table, hire the federal staff there to be in the room to navigate those resources that are available and truthfully move forward projects.”

The community – which includes its western Tennessee twin city of South Fulton – was tabbed to join the first RPN cohort last year along with the Kentucky Highlands area – which is made up of Bell, Clay, Perry, Harlan, Knox, Leslie, Letcher and Whitley counties. The program currently also serves communities in nine other states and Puerto Rico.

Wednesday’s forum at the Pontotoc Community Center in Fulton was attended by local government and business leadership, area nonprofit leaders, law enforcement leadership and members of the business community in addition to representatives from a bevy of federal governmental agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Transportation.

Fulton County Judge-Executive Jim Martin has lived in the far western Kentucky community for decades.

Martin said changes in the transportation industry left Fulton – once a bustling railroad town known for its prominence in the banana trade – behind economically with the building of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and the invention of refrigeration technology.

U.S. Census data indicates the city’s population peaked during the 1930s at just over 3,500 residents. Martin said years of steady population loss saw Fulton County ranked among the fastest shrinking counties in the country and that a new house hadn’t been constructed in the city in the past two decades. In 2020, the city’s population was a little more than 2,300.

Now, Martin thinks it’s time for Fulton to use this “collision of good luck” with RPN to bounce back.

“If you saw a trackhoe in Fulton in the last 25 years, it was brought here to tear something down, something that had decayed or fallen … and now I can see two of them here that are building something,” he said. “So our population has flattened out, you can watch what's going on on our streets, you can see the economy is trying to move upward and that's why this is very timely for us. We bottomed out and started working towards a rebound before we ever knew RPN existed.”

Fulton-Hickman Counties Economic Development Partnership Board director Mark Welch sees growing the area’s economy as more than bringing in new businesses.

“For a lot of small towns, like Fulton, economic development is community development,” Welch said. “So we've set our sights on several overarching projects that we think will, if successful, propel our communities into a more successful future.”

RPN helps member communities complete projects they’re working toward, helping local officials find appropriate grants for funding sources, moving the communities’ grant applications to the top of the heap for the consideration process and teaming them up with subject matter experts from government agencies.

Welch sees “enormous potential and possibilities” in Fulton’s RPN participation because of the experiences he’s had with federal partners so far.

“Everybody that we've met during this convention have approached their role here with a servant's heart,” he said. “I mean they want to do what they can to help us and we've made it very clear that we're not expecting a handout, but we sure would appreciate a hand up.”

There’s no end date for RPN’s involvement in Fulton or in any other member community, an aspect of the program that Martin finds hopeful.

“I found that a little strange and [Christine Sorensen] said, ‘Well, how long did it take you to get in this condition?’ I said, ‘70 or 80 years.’ She said, ‘We're going to be with you for 70 or 80 years until such time when we hold up the demographics of your community. And when it looks like McCracken County and Calloway County and other places that are doing good than our jobs. So we'll be with you for decades. So this is a long-term process, so to measure the impact on it would just be a wild guess.”

Moving forward, Martin’s main concern is getting more community members and leaders involved so that they can capitalize on this opportunity.

“What happens tomorrow, and what happens next week, and next month is what really counts,” Martin said. “So what we do with what we did here today is what counts.”

A native of western Kentucky, Operle earned his bachelor's degree in integrated strategic communications from the University of Kentucky in 2014. Operle spent five years working for Paxton Media/The Paducah Sun as a reporter and editor. In addition to his work in the news industry, Operle is a passionate movie lover and concertgoer.
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