Fostering economic opportunity in rural communities
By Vicki L. Walker
For the Capital Press
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently issued a report highlighting the impact of more than $33 billion to support rural businesses, infrastructure and housing in Federal Fiscal Year 2013. These programs, delivered through USDA’s Rural Development mission area, created 75,000 jobs, financed more than 175,000 homes, provided broadband access to 120,000 homes and businesses, and supported development of 1,000 essential community facilities in small towns and rural areas across the nation.
More than $589 million of that funding, mostly in the form of loans, is supporting economic growth through locally led initiatives right here in rural Oregon. I’d like to share with you some highlights of the returns on those strategic investments here in rural Oregon.
We all understand that small business is absolutely essential to a vital rural economy, yet finding and securing affordable business capital can be difficult in rural areas. Through the Business and Industry program last fiscal year, Rural Development guaranteed $26.8 million in commercial loans that created or saved 160 jobs in small-town Oregon. Through another program designed to improve access to capital, the Intermediary Relending Program, Rural Development provides seed capital to locally operated revolving loan funds which finance small projects important to the local economy. In 2013, 22 small business and community projects were able to access over $2 million in financing to create and save 97 jobs in rural Oregon.
Rural Development energy programs are also helping to create jobs while promoting the nation’s domestic energy independence and addressing climate change. Between 2009 and 2013 for example, the Rural Energy for America Program in Oregon supported installation of more than 150 renewable energy and energy efficiency projects at farms, ranches and rural small businesses that are creating or saving more than 36.9 million kilowatt-hours. That’s enough to power 3,689 average U.S. homes annually.
This isn’t just good news for rural Oregon. Nationwide, this business capital is creating a significant aggregate impact. Since the start of the Obama administration, USDA Rural Development business financing, economic development and energy programs nationwide have provided more than 18,000 guaranteed loans, direct loans and grants to help more than 74,000 businesses create or save more than 375,000 jobs.
Also in Fiscal Year 2013, USDA invested in more than 1,000 essential community projects with $1.4 billion in direct loans, guaranteed loans and grants. Among the projects financed are a new fire station going up in Dundee, Ore., as well as the state-of-the-art K-8 school under construction on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon.
In addition, the USDA financed hundreds of critical water and wastewater projects last year. These include projects that will ensure access to clean drinking water, protect the environment and allow for growth and economic development in Monument, Warrenton, Hood River and Powers, Ore.
USDA is also a key player in the recovery of the nation’s housing market, particularly in rural areas. For many realtors, USDA Rural Development loans account for a significant portion of their business. In 2013, nearly 170,000 rural families nationwide — including over 3,100 in Oregon — became homeowners through direct USDA loans and loans from private lenders that were guaranteed by USDA. Among these are 13 families in LaFayette, Ore., who became homeowners in 2013 after moving into houses they jointly built through USDA’s Mutual Self-Help Housing program. The group worked with oversight from Community Home Builders, a leader in the “Sweat Equity” concept of homebuilding, which allows homebuyers to contribute their own labor to offset a new home’s cost by as much as 60 percent.
These homeownership programs are complemented by assistance that helps rural residents find affordable rental housing at 193 apartment complexes across the state. Eligible low-income tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income on rent for decent, safe housing. Last year, USDA provided rental assistance to nearly 3,597 Oregon families. Including those receiving rental assistance, more than half a million working families, seniors and disabled residents across the country can access safe, affordable housing in their own rural communities near their families because of USDA-financed apartment facilities.
In the near-term, I can tell you how many jobs were created or saved, how many affordable housing units were made available, and how many residents have access to improved education, public safety or other community facilities. Looking farther ahead, however, our success will be measured by the young people who choose not to move to the big city, the seniors accessing the highest quality medical care no matter how far they live from population centers, the businesses opening up shop in your hometown, and the workers who can find family-wage jobs in their own rural communities.
My small team of specialists here at Rural Development and I are very proud of the role USDA has played to grow the economy and bring opportunity, innovation and economic growth to rural Oregon. We look forward to taking the next steps with you.
Vicki Walker is the state director for USDA Rural Development. Walker, a long-time resident of Eugene, served 10 years in the Oregon Legislature, in both the House and Senate, before being appointed to USDA Rural Development by President Obama in 2009.
For additional information on projects in Oregon, visit Rural Development’s Oregon website at http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/OR_Home.html
View the full report for USDA Rural Development nationwide at http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/SupportDocuments/RD_ProgressRpt2013.pdf.