2007-05-09 / Front Page

Waynesboro to lose Rural Development Office

By Anne Marie Kyzer Staff Writer

Unless an unforeseen change comes about, the USDA Rural Development office in Waynesboro will be closed by this time next year.

Residents will be served from an office in either Sandersville or Thomson, according to Donnie Thomas, assistant to the state director. Currently, Waynesboro is home to both a local office and an area-wide office for the federal agency. In a plan required by the USDA, Georgia is eliminating 15 local rural development offices and will maintain only area offices and the state office in Athens. The move will downsize the agency's locations across the state from 28 to 13.

While Waynesboro is currently home to one of those area offices, Thomas said agency officials decided that area offices in Thomson and Sandersville would better serve this part of the state. Those offices are both around 50 miles from Waynesboro.

The Waynesboro office is currently handling more than 700 loans and made 28 loans and grants last year, according to office manager Eugene Love. The office has made 16 loans already this year.

"We sorted through about 300 applications to make those loans," Love said. "That tells us right there that there is a tremendous need here."

Love worries that the same level of service won't be maintained for Burke County if the office here closes as planned.

Burke County Commissioner Alphonso Andrews agreed. Andrews worked in Waynesboro's Rural Development office for 33 years.

"The office is very much needed in Burke County, and I hate to see it leave," Andrews said. "It will cause an inconvenience for people in Waynesboro that don't have transportation to get from here to Thomson or Sandersville."

While some have said that technology will bridge the geographic gap, Love said that many don't use computers or the internet.

"Many of the people we serve are at the poverty level or below," he contended. "The people here in Burke County will suffer a great deal if this office closes."

Even Debra Pennington, who manages the Sandersville location, acknowledges that the loss of the Waynesboro office could hurt local residents.

"It will have an adverse effect on Waynesboro, I believe," she said, adding that many of their clients are not able to complete loan applications on their own, so the agency could not evolve into a "selfservice" system. Pennington said that a majority of the 591 loans handled by her office are for projects in Washington County or adjacent counties. Thomas said that the agency plans to continue offering services to counties that lose local offices by sending personnel to those locations on a regular basis and staying "visible."

"We're not going to have our employees sitting in an office," he said. "We're going to have them out meeting with clients."

Thomas said the agency will work to build partnerships with local community organizations and non-profits who they hope will help Rural Development staff identify potential clients.

Thomas said that the offices will operate more efficiently under the new system and no employees will be terminated in the transition process.

"We're not sending anyone home without a job," he said, adding that employees in offices that are slated to close will move to the closest area offices.

Rural Development offers financial and technical assistance to businesses, communities and individuals to help improve the economy and quality of life in rural areas.

The agency offers loans and grants for businesses, housing, community facilities, utilities and community development programs.

The Waynesboro office has been here since the early 1940s, originally under the name Farm Security Agency and later as the Farmers Home Administration.

The office has served this county and served it well and it's an asset to this community," Andrews said.

Waynesboro's office is expected to be closed by March 31 of next year.

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