Photo by Jess Davis
Although the Hudson Valley is home to several cities, the region remains largely rural, dotted with thousands of farms, mostly family farms, and community Main Streets supported by small businesses. The valley is rich in resources and yet many communities continue to face economic challenges.
“The last few years have been very difficult for our farmers,” said Congressman Antonio Delgado (D) at a recent Ulster County Chamber of Commerce breakfast where he discussed recently passed and proposed legislation designed to support rural communities, including the proposed Rebuild Rural America Act.
Not only have many of the area’s family farms struggled to stay solvent, but the region’s manufacturing jobs decreased during the last decades, moving to other countries or giving way to automation. The closure of local banks also made it harder for residents to finance the new businesses needed to stabilize and revitalize communities. As a result, some rural communities lack the capital to maintain services and promote economic growth.
There are federal funds available to help rural communities address some of the economic challenges they face, said Delgado, but many rural areas lack community or economic development organizations and/or grant writers to access these available public resources. Also, existing federal funding programs may lack the flexibility to properly fund complex community projects. With some federal programs designed to fund only particular aspects of a multi-tiered community project, plans for an entire project may have to be scrapped.
The difficulties rural communities face in accessing public services led Delgado to introduce The Rebuild Rural America Act (H.R.4874) in Congress on Oct. 28, 2019. The bill is co-sponsored by Senator Kristin Gillibrand (D), who introduced the act (S.2704) in the Senate on Oct. 24. The bills aim to simplify the process of accessing federal money to boost economic development in rural regions throughout the U.S.
“The bill creates a rural partnership fund consisting of $50 billion,” said Delgado. “This would provide eligible rural communities with non-competitive flexible block grants for five years to invest in local projects as they see fit.”
Block grants would be allocated based on a region’s population, with increased allocations for regions that have a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher.
The funds can be used for the critical infrastructure necessary to promote economic development, whether that is providing high-speed Internet or maintaining water and sewer facilities. The money can also be applied to basic public services, such as child care centers, public schools, libraries, community centers, and health care providers, or to develop a drug treatment program. Grants can be spent on job training, workforce development, or other needs relating to promoting and maintaining a skilled workforce. Money would also be available for emergency preparedness, disaster recovery, and hazard mitigation. Funds can be devoted to activities relating to energy conservation, the development, storage, and use of clean energy, and bio-based manufacturing, as well as attracting other investment or to promote entrepreneurship.
“This is designated just for rural communities,” said Delgado who represents New York’s 8,000 square-mile, 11-county 19th District. “The grant would give local stakeholders the money, the time, and the ability to carry out regional economic development goals and ensure local economies have the tools to fund and repair things like aging firehouses, to repave sidewalks, build out broadband, replace old and failing water infrastructure or even develop a local business incubator program.”
As an added bonus, projects that are part of a certified rural region’s plan would receive preferential consideration for funds from other USDA Rural Development (RD) programs.
“To be clear, this is funding that would go directly to local governments, not the state, and again this bill would be invaluable to communities that don’t have the resources to navigate the complex federal grants process in order to secure federal funding for important projects,” said Delgado. “It would move the federal government away from being a clunky, complicated silo top-down process into a more effective partner for rural communities.”
Delgado said that he’s excited about the ways the Rebuild Rural America bill might help farms and small businesses in the Hudson Valley, a place he fondly refers to as home, “a place I really have a lot of love for.”
“We’re going to keep working to get co-sponsors on it,” he said. “I’m going to make it a real priority of mine and my team in 2020.”
Both House and Senate bills are currently in committee. Bills are typically considered by committee before being sent on to the House or Senate as a whole.