Helping rural communities find federal money in the confusing mix of federal programs, newly expanded

Brookings Institution table identifies place-based industrial policy legislation
from the last Congress; eight of the 19 have a rural angle and are at the bottom
of the table, with the exception of the Regional Clean Energy Innovation program.

The 117th Congress put billions of dollars into grant and loan programs that can help rural communities, in what the Brookings Institution calls “Biden’s big bet on place-based industrial policy.” But many rural communities struggle to navigate the volume and details of the process, reports Ximena Bustillo of NPR: “There are more than 400 federal programs designed for rural communities. And there’s a new influx of funding passed in the last Congress from the trillion-dollar infrastructure law and the climate incentives of the Inflation Reduction Act. The problem is: it’s hard to know exactly where to start to go about getting the funding.”

Mayor Laura Thomas of Jackson, Kentucky, is one example. “Thomas knows there are a lot of federal programs that could help her small town of recover from a series of recent disasters: two historic floods, a destructive ice storm and the pandemic. But like many small-town mayors, Thomas doesn’t have grant writers or experienced staff to help sift through the programs.” Kentucky has regional offices to help with that, but Thomas told Bustillo, “We just get a different kind of answer each time you ask. And then my fear is that I won’t make the right decision.”

To address these gaps, the federal government “created a pilot program called the Rural Partners Network, naming point people to serve as guides to federal funding in select portions of 10 states and Puerto Rico,” Bustillo explains. Rachel Chambers, one of the community liaisons in Kentucky, told Bustillo, “I like to say that we’re matchmakers when it comes to rural communities and our federal agencies that are at the table. We can help move projects forward, whether it’s capacity building or technical assistance and different grant programs, or even if it’s just making an introduction for a community.”

“Having the additional staff on the ground makes a huge difference,” Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Rural Development Xochitl Torres Small told Bustillo. “They can take the time to do the convening and the planning that’s so crucial for pursuing a grant or a loan and having those plans that really make it a feasible project in the first place.” Bustillo adds, “But the pilot program covers just a small fraction of rural areas in the country. . . . There are entire states that have no help at all.”

Rural areas need consistent and ongoing attention. “Jim King, president of FAHE, a nonprofit organization working to develop rural Appalachia recalled Clinton-era empowerment zones and the Obama-era promise zones that sought to accomplish some of the same goals at the Rural Partners Network. . . . But none of the programs have had staying power, King said, noting the problems in rural America need a long-term view when most politicians are looking for ‘shovel-ready’ short-term fixes.” King told Bustillo, “They have a short attention spans.”

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