USDA rural investment tops $500 million
By Patrick Springer
By dollar amount, the biggest investments were in rural electric and telecommunications projects, which totaled $346.3 million, or 68 percent, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program.
Providing broadband Internet access to rural areas has been a priority of the Obama administration, Jasper Schneider, USDA rural development director for North Dakota, said Thursday.
“We take broadband very seriously,” he said, adding that it provides business opportunities, enables telemedicine and improves quality of life for rural residents.Affordable housing projects comprised the next largest segment, with $75.6 million in loans and grants, or 15 percent of total investment in North Dakota last year.Projects included everything from water systems and roads to hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities.“Those are things that don’t happen on their own but have to be the foundation for private investment that wouldn’t materialize,” Schneider said.The public investments help to spur private investments that revitalize rural communities, which always face more challenges and greater risks than urban areas, Schneider said.“Rural doesn’t happen on its own,” he said. “It takes a strong investment.”Many of the rural development investments – $589 million since 2010 – are in 19 oil- and gas-producing counties in western North Dakota, where the petroleum boom has strained communities’ ability to provide adequate services and infrastructure.Those have included $46.6 million in loans and $923,517 in grants for health care and emergency services since 2010. Projects included a $15 million loan for a new hospital in Bowman and a loan of $8 million to expand the hospital in Tioga.Affordable housing, including housing for the elderly and public-sector workers, in the Oil Patch totaled $109.2 million in loans and almost $5 million in grants.Even with the heavy investment in western North Dakota, 40 percent of the investments have been made in the rest of the state, including eastern North Dakota.“That means a tremendous amount of resources still are going to the east,” Schneider said.