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Hall moves up rankings of well-off counties
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With a per capita income of less than $18,000 and more than a quarter of its population living in poverty, Hancock is the poorest county in Georgia, according to a new list that also ranks Oconee the state’s most prosperous county.

Forsyth, Fayette, Cherokee and Harris rounded out the five best performing counties based on unemployment rates, per capita income and residents living below the poverty line, according to 2009 job tax credit rankings issued Tuesday by the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

Calhoun, Macon, Jenkins and Telfair, meanwhile, joined Hancock in the bottom five.

The agency lists the counties in order from poorest to most prosperous, with 1 being the poorest and 159 most prosperous.

In Northeast Georgia, among Tier 4 counties, Hall moved up three positions from 144 to 147 in the latest rankings. Banks County moved down one from 145 to 144. Dawson County also was down two positions from 152 to 150. Other counties in the region were ranked as Tier 3. Lumpkin was unchanged at 112, Habersham dropped 10 spots from 131 to 121, Jackson fell eight positions from 140 to 132 and White moved up one from 119 to 120.

Rabun County, which borders North and South Carolina, was the only North Georgia county to move up a full level, going from Tier 2 to 3.

The department annually assesses all 159 Georgia counties, ranking them from first tier — the least developed — to fourth tier, which is the highest performing.

Local business in manufacturing, warehousing and distribution, processing, telecommunications, tourism, broadcasting, or research and development can qualify for tax credits, with the amount determined by their number of new hires and the county’s tier ranking.

Higher ranked counties are considered economically strong and businesses there qualify for less of a credit.

"Areas with the highest unemployment, the lowest per capita income, (and) the highest poverty rate are generally indicated to be the least developed areas in the state" and would get more of a credit, said Brian Williamson, assistant commissioner for community development.

The credit is designed to lure businesses and encourage existing companies to expand in some of the most troubled parts of Georgia.

Oconee swapped places with Forsyth for wealthiest county. It’s been in the Top 5 for the better part of a decade, according to Melvin Davis, chairman of the county board of commissioners.

The ranking reflects the bedroom community’s proximity to the University of Georgia, a regional economic engine, Davis said, as well as a highly educated populace. Roughly 40 percent of the adult population has a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the 2000 Census.

The state average is closer to 24 percent.

"We do have a very skilled citizenry so therefore they probably do command some higher paying positions," Davis said.

Brantley, Clayton, Pulaski, Rabun and Houston counties all moved up a tier in Tuesday’s rankings, which are based on a 12-month average of the employment, income and poverty levels.

Montgomery, Screven, Upson and Wilkes counties moved out of the bottom 40.

Hancock has come in dead last since 2002.

Compared to the late ‘90s, "you would see more establishments there, more jobs there and so forth. They’ve grown," Williamson said. "But they still have some need."

The 2000 Census showed less than 10 percent of Hancock County’s population with a college degree. A 2004 DCA snapshot listed a supermarket among their biggest local employers.

Because the county is in the lowest tier, a business there could qualify for a credit of $3,500 per job, if it could maintain at least five net new jobs.

But that’s not enough incentive to lure some to the rural region with as many trees as people, said Joyce Blevins, director at East Central Georgia Consortium. The consortium coordinates job training in 12 counties, including Hancock.

"It is very hard for people in Hancock, Glascock ... there are no companies located there," she said.

A small perfume company is among the only businesses based in Hancock, she said.

That’s just not enough.

"It’s not that they don’t have the ability to do the jobs," she said. "The jobs just aren’t there."