Rural investments paying dividends

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April 1, 2014 | 12:28 am

By Bill Menner

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I read Chuck Hassebrook’s recent opinion piece (“Invest tax money in rural business,” Sept. 7) with great interest. I respect Hassebrook’s work on behalf of rural America.

But he has apparently not seen the work the U.S. Department of Agriculture has done across Iowa during the past

3 1/2 years. Nor has he noted the efforts led by the Obama administration to strengthen rural economies and create new opportunities for growth.

I think they are worth highlighting because they have had a tremendous impact across rural America and here in Iowa.

Since 2009, USDA has pumped $2 billion into Iowa’s small towns and rural communities to help improve quality of life and build the rural economy. That includes more than 1,200 grants and loans to help Iowa businesses grow and thrive.

As part of this assistance, guaranteed loans totaling $137.6 million were awarded to local lenders to assist 52 businesses in rural Iowa to receive the financing and terms they needed to expand and add jobs. That includes a $25 million loan guarantee to Fiberight LLC, the Blairstown company turning municipal solid waste into biofuels.

USDA has provided $247 million in loans and grants to assist with 313 community facilities projects throughout the state, including such things as new fire trucks, fire stations, hospitals, assisted living facilities, libraries and community centers. For example, a new child care center in Wyoming was financed in part through a USDA loan and grant.

USDA funding has helped 20 rural hospitals make needed facility and equipment improvements. It also is helping rural health care facilities improve their access to technology, including telemedicine.

An additional $115 million in USDA loans and grants have helped more than 60 communities undertake water and wastewater improvement projects, safeguarding the health and well-being of rural Iowans. A sewer project near Leisure Lake in Jackson County received a loan and grant worth $3.8 million to serve residents and protect the lake’s water quality.

USDA also helped nearly 9,600 families with home loan purchases, either through a direct home loan or working with a local lender to provide a government-backed loan guarantee. Those loans totaled more than $910 million. And we have helped to connect rural areas to the Internet, investing $266 million to help bring new and improved broadband services to hundreds of rural businesses and thousands of rural Iowans.

South Slope Communications of North Liberty has expanded its broadband network throughout Benton, Iowa, Johnson and Linn counties with the help of USDA loans. It now serves 20,000 rural residents.

Meanwhile, we continue to invest in smart-grid technologies that will facilitate the integration of renewable sources of electricity into the grid, help avoid blackouts and restore power quicker when outages occur, and reduce the need for new power plants.

Earlier this year, Maquoketa Valley Rural Electric Cooperative received a loan totaling $3.25 million to build and improve 252 miles of distribution line and make other system improvements, serving 635 customers.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack continues to advocate for a strong farm safety net which, as Hassebrook points out, is particularly key in a time of severe drought in Iowa. Since 2009, USDA ensured a record level of farm lending in a time of tight credit for many farm families, including more than 8,500 farm loans for Iowa families totaling more than $1.1 billion in credit.

These investments are making a real, tangible impact on the lives of Iowans. They help rural communities thrive and they’re smart policy decisions. Importantly, they’re proof that better, stronger and more vibrant rural communities are on our horizon.

Bill Menner is USDA Rural Development state director in Iowa. Comments: Bill.Menner@ia.usda.gov

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