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USDA Rural Development projects play an important role in area

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BEMIDJI — Whether funding $10 million in tribal college improvements or $60,000 toward a new fire truck, area residents benefit from USDA Rural Development funds in a variety of ways, according to a statewide think tank.

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"We need civic leaders … and the nonprofit organizations that they work with all aware of how dependent rural Minnesota is on these programs," said Lee Egerstrom, economic develop fellow with Minnesota 2020.

Minnesota 2020, a "nonpartisan progressive think tank," released on Monday a 21-page report, "Blueprints for Rural Progress: Critical Need for Federal Development Funding," examining the use of Rural Development grants and loans throughout Minnesota.

Rural Development is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture with funds provided by the federal farm bill.

Minnesota 2020’s report comes as Congress continues to debate a new five-year farm bill.

"We’re not a lobbying organization … but we think public awareness and understanding is vital if in fact we’re going to measure the effectiveness of programs," Egerstrom said.

According to Minnesota 2020’s report, Minnesota benefits from $630 million to $760 million annually in Rural Development grants and loans.

Local projects include $11 million for new Red Lake Tribal College construction, $60,000 for a Gonvick fire truck and about $1.8 million in loans and loan guarantees for a water/environmental project in the Red Lake-Heart Lake area.

In Bemidji, two high-profile projects were buoyed with low-interest USDA loans, including $700,000 for a new Bemidji Community Arts Center and $300,000 for a new Bemidji Community Food Shelf site.

The new food shelf site, with more than 12,000 square feet of building space and ample land, provides numerous opportunities, including the ability to repackage and distribute bulk foods and establish a community garden.

The food shelf opened in its new home last fall.

Bill Beyer, president of the food shelf, said it served 118 families in one day last month, 958 families in all of May and has distributed more than 278,000 pounds of food in the first five months of the year.

"I want to say, loud and clear, without the Rural Development we would not be here (at the new site) and I have no idea how we could have possibly done what we were able to (if we remained at the old site)," Beyer said.

Beyer credited Rural Development with not only providing the loan, but also for providing technical expertise.

According to Minnesota 2020’s report, Rural Development has invested about $3 billion in rural Minnesota since 2009.

From aiding low-income housing business start-ups to renewable energy development, Rural Development helps provide funds for infrastructure improvements and businesses in all of Minnesota’s 87 counties, Minnesota 2020 said.

"We get to help a lot of nonprofits, townships, small towns, to do a lot of things," said Kathy Luepke, area specialist with Rural Development in Bemidji. "We can build a town from the ground up."

A new five-year farm bill currently is being debated in Congress. The latest House proposal includes steep cuts to food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program, five times those in the Senate farm bill.

"When you think of the farm bill, you think of farmers, but no, when you think of the farm bill, think of food and everything that is related to food," Beyer said. "Food stamps, WIC, lunch programs, all these kinds of programs would be devastated (by the proposed cuts). We would be devastated as a food shelf. It would be totally impossible for us to pick up the slack."

It is not known how Rural Development would be impacted by a new farm bill, but Minnesota 2020 reports it already has been cut several times in the last decade.

In 2003, Rural Development employed 124 people, according to the report. By 2009, that figure dropped to 110 and now it is at 84.

Egerstrom said Minnesota 2020 has kicked off its statewide campaign not to lobby against the farm bill exactly, but to raise public awareness about what Rural Development funds.

Egerstrom, a veteran journalist, said he has covered economic development for more than 35 years. Yet as he compiled the report, he said he was struck by the breadth of Rural Development’s impact throughout the state.

"If there are big cutbacks in these federal programs coming … we’re going to have an awful lot of state officials and state lawmakers shocked at what they’re going to be asked to provide to fill the void," he said.

To read more…

The full report, Blueprints for Rural Progress, can be found online at mn2020.org

Local impact

Te following is a list of some of the regional projects that have benefitted from USDA Rural Development grants and loans.

-- Red Lake Tribal Center, $10 million, 2012

-- Red Lake Tribal College, $11 million, 2012

-- Gonvick Fire Department, $60,000 in loans and loan guarantee, for a new fire truck, 2013

-- Red Lake — Heart Lake, $1.9 million in loans and loan guarantee for a water/environmental project

-- Bi-County CAP, $500,000 in loans and loan guarantee, to purchase and rehab a building, 2012

-- Bemidji Community Food Shelf, $300,000, 2012

-- Bemidji Community Art Center, $700,000, 2012

-- Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, $3 million for tribal administration building, 2012

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