The USDA’s Rural Development arm is is offering grants and loans for rural community projects throughout Alaska. The agency recently hosted a working session in Anchorage in an outreach effort to encourage community economic development ideas.
Jim Nordlund, the state’s USDA Rural Development director, gathered his statewide managers and program directors together in Anchorage earlier this month [Sept 5] to galvanize the outreach his agency is promoting in pursuit of community economic growth in the five regions the agency serves within Alaska.
During the training session, Nordlund brought his staff together to hear panels of professional economic developers so they could listen to, and learn from, the experts.He said he’d like his staff to “be more knowledgeable and proactive in pursuing projects in rural AK that can result in a better quality of life and more jobs.”
“A lot of people are very surprised to know the level of activity that we have in the state. In the past five years, we have done one and a half billion dollars worth of investments, in loans and grants, in the area of electric and telecom, business, housing and community facilities, as well as sewer and water projects in rural Alaska.”
And, Nordlund says, USDA Rural Development has plenty of money to lend. He said the department has a $200 billion loan portfolio nationwide. All of Alaska is not considered rural, however. Anchorage, for instance, has too great a population. Rural communities are defined by the numbers of houses, and businesses or the size of their power and telecommunications utilities. But, Nordlund says, most of state is considered rural, and that means it faces hurdles in creating jobs. And, he says, federal programs, such as the loan programs his agency offers, are available to help small communities get local businesses started.
“Remember, most of what we do, and you will see that reflected across the federal government now, is that there is getting to be fewer and fewer grants. But we do have really attractive loan programs, and because loans get paid back to the federal treasury, Congress is much more accepting of our loan programs. So we have plenty of loan money available, either for community facilities or businesses, as well as utilities. “
One challenge – the loan opportunities often are not tapped by the entities that could be using them. Nordlund says one goal of his department is to support projects that improve quality of life. He points out that twenty years ago, most rural Alaska villages didn’t have running water and flush toilets, now most do, in part because of USDA funding and partnerships with other entities, such as the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, the state’s department of environmentalconservation, and the Indian Health Service
“We’ve all been partners in providing better sanitation conditions in rural Alaska, and I think that obviously improves the quality of life.”
Nordlund stressed the benefits of collaboration between entities to achieve successful results.
Presenters, such as Brian Holst, executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council, and Annie Fritze, the Economic Development director for the Bristol bay Native Association, spoke about their role in promoting development from idea to reality. Holst advised looking to local products and attractions — such as commercial fishing and tourism — to devise money-producing ideas.
Annie Fritze says one idea in her community is the recycling of cardboard boxes, that normally would be dumped in the landfill, to make pellets for fuel. Fritze says that idea is on the drawing board now, but a USDA rural grant could help pay for a pellet making machine.
Bill Popp, executive director of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, says small business can be an economic stimulator, although they face an uphill challenge in rural areas. Popp said economic development and community development are two different things, but both need the other to succeed. He said Alaska’s small workforce and long distance from the Lower 48 is a big drawback to both local enterpreneurs, and to companies seeking to locate in the state:
“First thing that a company looks at , depending on it’s purpose, it looks at the market opportunities in Alaska. They are going to be looking at an available workforce. …….. We have some challenges on those points. We don’t have a large population, there’s only 730,000 of us, we don’t have a large available workforce, we have relatively low unemployment, especially in the Southcentral region, and that makes it challenging for new businesses trying to invest in Southcentral, in trying to find the workforce that they need.”
Popp said transportation costs to and from Alaska is one of the major blocks to the development of state manufacturing.
USDA Rural Development works to strengthen the relationship between the community and it’s economy, Nordlund said