TIFTON -- Local leaders announced Thursday that the City of Tifton and Tift County have been named one of five Georgia Signature Communities.

The community was given the designation as one of the inaugural members of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs' Signature Community Program.

Tifton and Tift County were chosen from the Southwest Georgia Super Region. The other four communities were Snellville for the Metro Atlanta Super Region, Covington and Newton County for the North Georgia Super Region, Forsyth for the Middle Georgia Super Region, and St. Mary's, Kingsland, Woodbine and Camden County for the Southeast Georgia Super Region. The five communities were chosen from among 56 applicants.

Tifton Mayor Paul Johnson, Vice Mayor Joe Lewis, City Councilmen Roosevelt Russell and Dick Chalfant, County Commissioners Charlotte Bedell, Moody Huggins and Chairman Grady Thompson and State Sen. Joseph Carter were all on hand as DCA Commissioner Mike Beatty presented the award.

"I'm so proud of y'all," said Beatty, who started the program when he first took over the DCA. "It's important that you recognize and reward communities that work together and step to the plate."

He said that the designation will allow the City of Tifton and Tift County to be eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and allow them to receive specialized assistance from the DCA. Beatty said that the communities had displayed the type of leadership that could serve as a model for other communities.

Johnson said that the two communities have shown a consistent track record of success and that they have a comprehensive plan for further success. He said that the ongoing consolidation between the two governments led to the designation which he called "excellence plus." Tifton and Tift County have reached 33 interlocal agreements consolidating services including water, fire protection and animal control.

"The county and the city are working together to make a better Tifton/Tift County," said Thompson. "We're working on making it the best city/county in the state of Georgia."

He said that the efforts will make the community "truly first class."

"It won't be long before us in Tifton, we're as good as North Georgia," Thompson said. "We may not be there yet but we're on the way."

The designation will provide the city and county with many benefits, including:

--two years of customized technical assistance;

--access to a grant of up to $50,000;

--assistance in identifying other financial resources;

--access to Georgia Department of Transportation matching funds of up to $100,000 for Local Assistance Road Program resurfacing projects;

--access to Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority state loans at reduced rates;

--preference in selection under the Single Family Development Program and the Rental Housing Development Fund;

--down payment assistance funds for local government employees buying homes in the community;

--annual competition for Community Development Block Grants;

--reduced loan rates through DCA's economic development finance programs;

--rating and selection criteria bonus points for Local Development Fund grants; and

--preference in the allocation of development funding for new homeless facilities.

The community leaders also thanked the Rural Development Center and the city and county staff for writing the community's application for the Signature Community Program.

Beatty and his DCA staff also made a stop in Ocilla Thursday morning. There they named Ocilla Georgia's first Opportunity Zone. Part of the Opportunity Zone Tax Credit Program, the zones are less developed areas that the DCA has been authorized to help improve.

Because of the designation, Ocilla businesses can now use job tax credits of up to $3,500 for jobs created against their state income tax liability. The jobs can be in many types of businesses, including retail companies. The businesses would be eligible to use job tax credits for up to 10 years or as long as the created jobs are maintained.

To contact reporter Dusty Vassey, call 382-4321, ext. 208.

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