The Daily Globe - Serving Gogebic, Iron and Ontonagon Counties

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USDA Rural Development heads encourage participation in programs


October 26, 2018


Ironwood — The state and Upper Peninsula directors of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development came to the Gogebic Range this week to promote the many department programs that could potentially benefit locals.

“We always like to say we are the only federal agency that can literally build a community from the ground up,” joked Donald Gerrie, the area director overseeing operations in the Upper Peninsula. “We have water and waste and we go all the way to the air, and everything in between — housing, community facilities — we can pretty much build a community.”

The region has already benefitted from USDA Rural Development funds — Gogebic County alone has received $100 million in the last eight years, according to Gerrie — but there is likely more assistance that hasn’t been tapped.

Gerrie stopped at the Daily Globe Thursday with Jason Allen, Rural Development’s director for Michigan, during a swing through the western U.P. that also including meetings in Wakefield and Ontonagon.

Allen outlined many of the programs the department makes available not only to municipalities and non-profits, but homeowners and businesses as well.

While the department isn’t involved in local discussions regarding moving forward after Ojibway Correctional Facility’s closure in December, both Allen and Gerrie indicated they were open to provide what assistance they could.

“If there were a redevelopment purpose at that site, if there was a business that wanted to come into that site, we would certainly be willing to look at that and talk to that,” Gerrie said, adding USDA Rural Development is also willing to sit down with local municipal leaders, if desired.

Allen said the department has helped with the similar situations elsewhere in the state in various capacities.

Other programs can be used toward major priorities for the Trump administration, according to Allen, such as infrastructure development.

Part of that includes improvements to water and sewer systems, a source of federal funds local governments are likely already familiar with.

Roughly $20 million of the $51 million the department spent in the U.P. for water and sewer went to Bessemer’s ongoing project, according to Gerrie, and Ironwood also received funds in recent years as part of the U.S. 2 reconstruction project.

“All the underground stuff was financed by us for the water and sewer and everything else,” he said.

The sewer and water is a focus due, in part, to the beneficial impact that infrastructure has on the region’s bodies of water, according to Allen.

“It’s huge on Great Lakes water quality, and it also creates a backbone for infrastructure,” Allen said. “(And) it’s hard to attract investment if you don’t have your infrastructure in place.”

While sewer and water projects may be what USDA Rural Development is known for locally, Allen and Gerrie stressed there are many other areas they can help.

“Anything that provides an ‘essential community service,’ we can finance,” Gerrie said. “Not really a recreational place, we can’t do a golf course. But anything that provides an essential community service; we do a lot of fire trucks, we do a lot of street sweepers — you name it. Police cars are huge, we do a lot of police cars.”

One major area — high-speed broadband expansion — is another priority for the department under the current administration.

Allen said there are two funding sources that he envisions can be combined for that purpose.

One takes advantage of money available under the Rural Utilities Act and can be used for projects such as the installation of smart meters in communities, a step Allen said lays the ground work for a community’s broadband grid.

“That gets you to the house, and then really all you have to do is connect three feet through the wall of the house,” Allen said.

In concert with the use of utility funds, Allen said an additional $600 million to $700 million is included in the reconciliation budget for grants in the broadband space. He said the rules and parameters for this money are still being developed, but its availability was likely on the very near horizon.

With no advertising budget, Gerrie said word-of-mouth is key to getting people to take advantage of the programs available to them.

“We’re trying to spread the good word in the western part of the U.P. ... We have 15 people in the U.P. that cover all 15 counties,” he said. “Traditionally, we are probably higher producing in this area than say most of the offices down below the bridge. It’s our goal to bring more federal dollars into Michigan.”


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