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Georgia’s Public Service and Outreach staff likes to say UGA won three recent national championships. Two were the back-to-back 2022 and 2023 NCAA football championships. The other was for public service.

Last November, UGA was awarded the C. Peter Magrath Community Engagement Scholarship Award from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. The award, the nation’s highest for public service, recognized the Archway Partnership, a unit of Public Service and Outreach (PSO), for its innovative and effective work in connecting community partners statewide to UGA’s vast resources to help them solve local economic, workforce and other challenges.

The award, in a broader sense, is a tribute to the university’s historic commitment to public service. “There is a deep understanding among our university community that as the public invests in UGA, because we are a public entity, we need to make sure that we are a good return on investment for the entire state,” says PSO Vice President Jennifer Frum. “In a way, outreach is in our DNA, and we are intrinsically designed to serve and give back to the people of Georgia. Everything we do – teaching, research and service – should be measured by the extent to which it benefits our students and contributes to the well-being of communities.”

Some strategic infrastructure investments within PSO include a first-of-its kind Small Business Development Center (SBDC), born 40 years ago and now with 18 offices statewide, and the UGA Vinson Institute of Government, created in 1927 and today the nation’s largest university-based provider of education and technical assistance to state and local governments. In addition, the UGA J.W. Fanning Institute of Leadership Development, named for the PSO’s first vice president, has assisted 109 Georgia counties in the last five years with leadership programing.

The Archway Partnership, the SBDC, the Vinson and Fanning institutes and the Georgia Center are five of eight units within PSO. Collectively, the eight PSO units had a nearly $500 million impact on the state last year, according to the annual economic impact study led by professor Michael Adjemian in the UGA Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

Professors Serve Alongside Students

Another key feature of PSO’s outreach is a public service faculty track. “We have many public service faculty around the state who serve as connections between communities and the university,” says Frum. “They are embedded in our public service units and extension [services], and 100% of their time is devoted to outreach and engagement.”

PSO constantly reviews its infrastructure to make changes that keep pace with economic, social and cultural changes in the state. “That’s how the Archway Partnership was born,” says Frum, pointing out that about 20 years ago the university saw a need for even deeper, longer-term engagement with specific communities.

The partnership, named after the landmark arch that is the symbolic entrance to the university, was created in 2005. Today Archway has an embedded faculty member in eight counties (Burke, Colquitt, Hart, McDuffie, Newton, Pulaski, Spalding and Washington).

Each public service faculty member, known as an Archway professional, works with a local executive committee of elected, education, business and nonprofit leaders to help solve challenges the community identifies by connecting them to university resources, including students and other faculty.

More than 250 faculty and 1,500-plus students have participated in Archway projects. Since 2009, Archway communities have secured more than $30 million in grant funding stemming from their collaboration with UGA. Other support includes funds from USDA grants. One to the College of Pharmacy provided nearly $1 million to improve management of chronic health conditions in rural Georgia, with Archway’s help. The other was a $1.5 million USDA grant to allow UGA to help advance agricultural initiatives and innovative food production statewide as part of USDA’s Food System Transformation framework.

The economic impact during the last three years is almost $500 million, according to Frum. “Those are significant numbers,” she says, “but they are just part of the (PSO) story.” The real story, she points out, is happening in the communities.

Mental Health Experts Help Law Enforcement

The first Archway community was in Moultrie in Colquitt County. In 2005, Moultrie officials asked UGA for assistance in dealing with stressors from a major new industry, poultry.

“UGA and the community came up with an idea,” says Frum. “Let’s place a dedicated public service faculty member there, someone skilled in community engagement who is knowledgeable about campus resources.”

That concept led to the creation of the Archway Partnership. From 2005 to 2017, UGA’s economic impact in Moultrie/Colquitt was $226.9 million, according to a 2017 study by the UGA Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

Of all the Archway projects there, “a co-responder partnership between the Moultrie Police Department, the Colquitt County Sheriff’s Department and the Georgia Pines Community Service Board has sort of been our bell cow,” says Chip Blalock, Colquitt County Archway Partnership Executive Committee chair and SunBelt Ag Expo executive director. The initiative, developed in partnership with UGA’s Terry College of Business and College of Public Health, provides a licensed mental health clinician to accompany law enforcement officers on mental health calls. The goal is to determine if getting a person treatment is a better alternative than taking them to jail.

Since the program started in May 2022, the clinician has been on 281 calls with police, says Robert Hurn, CEO of Georgia Pines, which provides individuals and families with mental health, substance abuse and intellectual disability development services and is based in Moultrie. Of the calls, says Hurn, there was only one arrest, a big change since the program started. In addition, says Hurn, law enforcement spent much less time on the scene of calls than before the program began, only 16% of calls resulted in hospitalization, and there was a reduction in emergency room visits, resulting in annualized hospital savings of about $79,000.

“Basically, [the program has] put law enforcement back to doing what they are meant to do, which is law enforcement and not mental health and not make the jail a hospital,” says Hurn. Monetary savings are important, says Blalock, but “the real beauty is getting people the help they need so they can lead productive and sustainable lives.”

Expanding Archway’s Reach

The Archway Partnership’s success led UGA Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Jack Hu in 2022 to fund a new initiative, the Connected Resilient Communities (CRC) program. Because Archway can only serve eight communities at a time with a full-time faculty, CRC expands Archway’s award-winning community engagement model to both Archway and non-Archway communities to help distinguish themselves and be more attractive to economic development. Communities receive CRC designation by working with UGA to complete three projects in under two years.

In 2021, UGA reached out to Thomson/McDuffie County, an Archway community since 2017, to pilot the program. Of all the Thomson/McDuffie Archway projects, which include everything from an Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy with the SBDC and Fanning Institute to a downtown pollinator garden planned by the State Botanical Garden, the one that will have the greatest long-term visibility is downtown revitalization, says Don Powers, Thomson/McDuffie Archway Executive Committee chair and president of Forward McDuffie, an economic development nonprofit.

The revitalization includes a new downtown park with a splash pad, playgrounds and a concert pavilion that will improve Thomson’s quality of life. Completing this park design, which helped in achieving funding, was one of numerous projects that engineering students worked on in Thomson/McDuffie for their senior capstone requirements. Powers expects park construction to begin later this year and last 12 to 18 months. “It’s almost a textbook definition for how the Archway process works,” says Powers, “marrying community needs with some of the best and brightest students at UGA.”

Practicality Meets Creativity

Several communities have followed Thomson/McDuffie in earning the CRC designation. One of those is the Archway community of Hartwell/Hart County. “The CRC designation is a valuable tool in our toolbox for promoting forward-thinking leadership and economic development possibilities in Hartwell and Hart County,” says Bill Leard, Hart Archway Executive Committee chair.

Projects completed for a major downtown Hartwell revitalization helped achieve that status. The revitalization included work by engineering students to redesign and expand a business-critical parking lot; by environment and design students to create Railroad Street Park in a historic area; and by art students to produce murals around town as part of the UGA Lamar Dodd School of Art’s Color the World Bright project, which creates and restores murals of a bygone time in Georgia towns.

“The city’s work to create more reliable downtown parking is critical to economic benefits and safety,” says Leard. “We are fortunate to have the support of our partners from Archway and the creativity of UGA students, faculty and staff.”

Another Archway benefit, points out Leard, “is that the students’ work has been instrumental in securing additional funding.” Adding to the CRC distinction, this August Hartwell was awarded Outstanding Community Transformation/Downtown of the Year by the Georgia Downtown Association.

Collaboration Brings New Ideas

Archway is not the only successful PSO economic driver. Other PSO units create value by addressing additional critical issues, including workforce challenges. One of those units, the Institute of Government, worked with Vidalia/Toombs County to test a Workforce Planning Guide while it was in development. The guide, which the institute developed with Georgia Power’s Education and Workforce Development team, is based in part on action items and can be adapted to address workforce challenges anywhere in the state.

Vidalia/Toombs was experiencing workforce retention and recruiting issues in 2020 and 2021 made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Institute of Government helped civic leaders realize one of their problems was that many groups and organizations were working in silos. “Going through this process allowed us to get all these groups in the same room, talking to and inspiring each other,” says Michelle Johnson, Greater Vidalia Chamber of Commerce president and Toombs County Development Authority executive director.

Now, innovative programming is popping up that wasn’t part of the original planning guide initiative. One program, with logistics company Dot Foods, allows long-haul truck drivers to take family members on trips. Another is an in-school pilot childcare program the local school system initiated. Still another project involves addressing a housing shortage for workers  Vidalia/Toombs is trying to recruit.

“That came about primarily because of the information we learned going through the workforce strategy project and the difficulties employers expressed in recruiting employees because there was no workforce housing,” says Johnson.

Helping Teens Succeed

The Institute of Government also partnered with the Cherokee Office of Economic Development (COED) in 2016 to launch the Cherokee Workforce Collaborative – a Cherokee County public-private talent development effort composed of local government, education, industry and nonprofits. COED officials saw the need based on industry feedback.

As part of a survey, industries were asked, “Would you ever hire a high school intern?” The answer was yes from 80% of respondents. There was a problem, though.

“Our career pathways in the high schools didn’t necessarily align with high-demand and high-growth jobs in our area,” says Misti Martin, COED president and CEO. “Based on data and facilitation from the Vinson Institute, our school district did some pathway realignment, and we made the Cherokee Workforce Collaborative permanent.”

One development from the collaboration was a high school summer internship program, which has produced 84 interns during the last six years. “Over 20% of the students have been retained as employees from their internships,” says Martin. “We feel like that’s a pipeline for our industries and helps our young people find meaningful careers.”

COED built on the success of the collaboration by launching a program called Be Pro Be Proud Georgia. Licensed from an initiative in Arkansas, the initiative seeks to shine a positive light on the skilled trades by focusing on 15 high-demand careers that do not require a four-year degree. The secret sauce is that the message is delivered to middle and high school students through a mobile workshop in a 40-foot trailer. As Martin puts it, those careers include “everything from nerdy to dirty” – computer programming, software development, healthcare, welding, construction and manufacturing among them.

Thanks to a grant from the Marcus Foundation, COED took the initiative statewide three years ago and today has reached 43,000 Georgia students. The program, Martin proudly notes, will soon have a second mobile workshop in a climate-controlled 18-wheeler to meet the demands of schools across the state. “If we hadn’t had the workforce collaborative and strategy UGA helped us develop, we would never have made this much progress,” says Martin.

PSO’s success in Cherokee and other communities remind Frum of something UGA President Jere W. Morehead said 10 years ago when he took over the university’s top job. “He really challenged us,” Frum recalls, “by asking the question, ‘What can the future hold if we recommit ourselves to setting a new standard of public service unprecedented in the nation?’ The great thing is that he backed up that challenge with resources to strategically target efforts for the biggest possible impact.”

PSO has led the university in accepting and meeting Morehead’s challenge to make UGA’s public outreach unprecedented in the U.S. As the next decade under his leadership begins, PSO and the students and faculty at UGA are ready to approach future community engagement challenges with the same zeal that earned them the 2022 Magrath award. “We are driven by a purpose to improve our state and the lives of Georgians,” says Frum. “We are kind of fanatics about it.”

“The value of a large public research university like the University of Georgia is that we have the breadth of expertise and the depth of talent in our faculty, staff and students to help communities address a multitude of issues that impact prosperity and quality of life,” says Morehead in a written statement. “I am incredibly proud of the success that UGA’s public service and outreach units have helped Georgians achieve across the state, and I look forward to making even further gains as we work together in the decade ahead.”

UGA is helping Georgia communities solve local challenges.

Source November 2023 issue of Georgia Trend written by Tom Oder