"The Peach Lady" (left) is happy to share a peach pie recipe with a customer Bath County Agricultural Education and Marketing Center, Owingsville, Kentucky. The USDA Rural Development grant program that supported the center is now one of the programs included in an initiative to encourage regional cooperation. Photo by Lance Cheung/USDA

Time will tell, but the 2014 Farm Bill contains what could be a boon for rural community and regional development.

The Strategic Economic and Community Development Initiative changes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s approach to rural community development, setting aside $300 million in grants and loans for regionally significant projects.

Maybe the program will only turn out to be an experiment, but bipartisan backing for the idea in Congress gives the program a fighting chance to have an impact in the long run.

In short, the idea of the initiative is to get communities with limited resources to talk together, find common interests, develop a regional plan, and apply for federal funding to meet their needs, especially for infrastructure restoration. Grant applications from multi-jurisdictional groups will receive funding priority.

USDA said it wants to promote collaborative, long-term approaches to economic development that are place-based and tied to regional needs. Conversations across jurisdictions are not limited to the local level. The legislation also seeks to have USDA cooperate more closely with other agencies that have rural programming, such as the Economic Development Administration (EDA), said Ted Stiger, legislative associate for the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO).

According to NADO, which helped frame the legislation, priority points are associated with the following Rural Development programs:

  • Community Facility Loans
  • Fire and Rescue and Other Small Community Facilities Projects
  • Community Facilities Grants
  • Community Programs Guaranteed Loans
  • Water and Waste Disposal Programs Guaranteed Loans
  • Water and Waste Loans and Grants
  • Business and Industry Guaranteed Loans
  • Rural Business Development Grants

Too often, rural development programs have been undersubscribed, Stiger said, possibly because rural communities, especially those with persistent poverty, need help, but do not have access to the technical assistance needed to fill out grant forms.

The new rural development provisions may offer a way for rural communities to renew themselves by planning together and sharing their resources. To receive priority in the USDA process, they need to develop a plan “through the collaboration of multiple stakeholders in the service area of the plan, including the participation of combinations of stakeholders such as state, local, and tribal governments, nonprofit institutions, institutions of higher education, and private entities,” according to the legislation.

The regional planning for these proposals will require communities to work together to think hard about where they are, what they need, and how they are going to cooperate to fill their needs. Communities will need to look carefully at things that could support the plan, like natural resources, human resources, infrastructure, and funding.

USDA Rural Development believes the program provides the department with an important mechanism to leverage regional economic and community development projects. USDA will reward communities that demonstrate best practices for sustainable regional and community prosperity. Long-range planning is intended to bring together key local and regional stakeholders to target investments.

Stiger said the new rural development effort came out of Congress because of widespread bipartisan agreement on the need to develop a program that promises to address rural America’s aging infrastructure as a step toward alleviating poverty. USDA is eager to roll out the program to see how it works and provide Congress with evidence of its effectiveness.

The program is centered on helping USDA Rural Development’s state-level staff, which has been reduced in recent years because of federal funding cuts, Stiger said. Partnerships with other federal agencies should break down silos across agencies and offer the opportunity for more effective, coordinated federal rural policy.

NADO’s goal—shared by the National Association of Counties and other development organizations—is to break down local and regional silos. This is a significant stumbling block in many rural areas. Communities tend to avoid talking with each other because of distance, long-standing rivalries, and perhaps, the malaise that accompanies long-run decline and high poverty levels.

But the past does not have to dictate the future. The first thing to do, Stiger said, is try to get people on the same page, with shared goals and a vision for their communities and regions. Given the poverty many communities face, he believed the program offers a chance for rural distressed communities to consider regional approaches that will pool resources to compete for projects intended to improve the quality of life.

Stiger recognized the problem that many communities may be worried about losing their identities in the process, and that keeping community identity is important. He pointed out that the Obama administration has embraced place-based economic development as part of wider regional strategies to enhance local strengths and qualities that communities can be part of coordinated regional development strategies.

Much work has gone into planning this legislation over the past several years.

It has bipartisan support in Washington.

The funds are available.

Now, it’s up to the communities to find out if they can work together to take advantage of what the program has to offer.

Here’s hoping.

Communities interested in learning more about applying for grants via the Strategic Economic and Community Development program may contact their USDA Rural Development State Office. Here’s more information about the program (PDF).

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone. He is the proprietor of Then and Now Media and author of Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.

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