Nevers addresses SLU 051819

Former chief of staff and state senator, Ben Nevers, addresses Southeastern Louisiana University's spring commencement ceremony Saturday, May 18, 2019, in Hammond.

The governor named his former chief of staff, Ben Nevers, Friday to chair a task force to start revitalizing Louisiana’s failing rural communities.

The goal of the Advisory Council on Rural Revitalization, which was formed by Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Executive Order, will be to remove for small towns “any barriers that prohibit them from being more productive, healthy and attractive places to live and work.”

Rural communities “bear a disproportionate burden of poverty, lack adequate access to healthcare, education and other basic necessities. This council will help us identify their unique challenges and help implement effective and innovative Louisiana solutions," Edwards said in a prepared statement. “It's in the best interests of our state to engage in a centralized and coordinated effort to further the revitalization of our rural areas and make certain the resources are available to help them grow in a sustainable way."

The problems of rural communities have long been neglected by a state government that for the past 40 years has favored bolstering the growing cities along Interstate 10. The issue was barely mentioned, and only in response to questions by reporters, during last fall’s gubernatorial campaign. But lately the governor and other officials have been taking note of rural problems in speeches.

Edwards ordered the task force to come up with a “comprehensive strategic plan” by Jan. 5, 2021.

Last month the Fiscal Review Committee, which decides when the state takes over from local government the administration near-bankrupt towns, identified 16 once vibrant rural towns on the brink of collapse. The Bond Commission has complained that more and more small communities are seeking loans to make payrolls and cover other everyday expenses.

Town businesses lost their customers and residents lost their jobs during the past four decades as agriculture changed and shed employment opportunities.

In 1960, before the shift in agricultural production, Louisiana had 74,438 farms that directly employed 101,880 workers. In 2017, Louisiana had 27,386 farms that directly employed 23,019 workers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Unemployment averaged 6% in rural areas and 4.3% in urban areas. The number of jobs has fallen every year in rural areas, but not so for urban areas. Poverty rates were 24.4% in rural areas in 2017. Urban poverty averaged 18.9% that year, making the state’s average 19.7%. Almost 21% of the rural population didn’t complete high school compared with the 14% average in urban areas, as of 2017.

Nevers is an electrician from Bogalusa who for 12 years was the state senator representing rural portions of the north shore including much of Edwards’ district when the governor was in the Louisiana House. He was the first chief of staff after Edwards was elected governor.

Edwards, who grew up in the Tangipahoa Parish seat of Amite, now lives in Roseland, a community suffering many of the same issues plaguing other small towns in Louisiana.

The Governor will appoint 34 members to the advisory council from the Legislature, Congress, the offices of lieutenant governor and other cabinet heads, along with universities, various trade associations and boards.

The group was tasked with identifying the needs, issues, and solutions, including economic development, education, healthcare, infrastructure, clean water, housing, workforce development, and the extension of high speed internet service. The group also will need to find federal and private grants, as well as developing legislation.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.