USDA Talks Rural Development, Improving Quality of Life
Anne Hazlett, assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development, U.S. Department of Agriculture, speaks during the afternoon session of the Strengthening Economies in Wyoming forum in Gillette, Wyoming
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has turned its attention to rural areas in Wyoming, and similar states, to improve the quality of life and provide crucial funding to increase prosperity.
“The Trump Administration shares your passion for rural America,” stated Anne Hazlett, assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development with the USDA.
Hazlett said that tremendous opportunity exists in the Midwest; whether it be for its rich heritage wrought with tradition or for its hard-working people and beautiful, wide-open spaces.
But like many rural areas across the country, Wyoming does not, at times, have the opportunity to enjoy the same infrastructure, broadband networks, and innovative technologies like other, larger communities. The USDA is on a mission to change that.
“Here we believe that access to modern and robust infrastructure is a necessity, and not an amenity, for a community to thrive,” Hazlett said, speaking at the Strengthening Economies in Wyoming forum yesterday afternoon. “No matter what zip code someone chooses to live or do business in, we know that infrastructure is the foundation of life for economic future in these places.”
In her own experience, Hazlett has seen that many infrastructure needs in rural communities, while at time numerous, can become manageable if key needs are met, such as access to modern healthcare.
Within the realm of infrastructure, the USDA is focused on two gaps in rural America: water infrastructure improvements and providing access to high speed internet through broadband.
This last year, the USDA received a historic level of funding for their rural water infrastructure program.
“We were able to partner with local leaders across the country to really replace old and deteriorating water infrastructure with new and reliable systems,” explained Hazlett. “These systems will serve almost 3 million rural Americans across the country.”
The water infrastructure improvements will provide critical capacity, which in turn will provide new economic opportunity that will ensure quality of life and prosperity in the affected towns for many years.
The USDA recently helped improve the water distribution system in Fort Laramie, which reportedly increased the systems functions, increased fire response flow, and helped eliminate other challenges that the town was struggling with, Hazlett said.
In Grey Bull, they upgraded the sewer systems, which eliminated costly repairs, increased flow capacity, and increased the functionality of their collection system.
Reportedly, the USDA understands the struggle for rural communities to deal without suitable broadband networks, as well.
“We know that [broadband] is as important today as rail, roads, and bridges,” said Hazlett. “We also know that beyond that economic attraction, how important it is to the quality of life in these communities.”
The USDA feels that providing access to high speed internet would create a place that can retain and recruit talent. It can also provide access to healthcare, education, or, as in some remote places, communication with family and friends via social media.
To help bridge that gap, Hazlett was excited to announce that the USDA has received $600 million in funding from congress and U.S. President Donald Trump for a pilot program that is available to serve communities of 20,000 people or less.
“The program is exciting as an increase in our resources. Beyond that, it’s very exciting in terms of flexibility that it’s going to provide [the USDA],” said Hazlett.
The money will complement the efforts of the states, much like a similar situation near Sheridan, where the Tongue River Valley Joint Powers Board applied for and received a $4 million loan to build a 17-mile natural gas pipeline distribution system.
The system will serve the towns of Dayton and Ranchester, Hazlett said, but it’s a good example of collaboration between local, state and federal governments.
“It’s the federal investment that’s building this 17-mile natural gas pipeline; however, a feasibility study for that project was funded by the state, and then beyond that our funding was leveraged by startup money from the Sheridan County Board of Commissioners,” Hazlett explained.
Additionally, the USDA is working to increase capital and access to capital for rural communities. Based on the recommendations of a federal task force, Hazlett announced that the USDA will be implementing many of those recommendations, one of which is removing red tape standing in the way of prosperity and rural America.
Hazlett said the application process for grants or loans will become streamlined, more user-friendly.
“At rural development, our leader [U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue], has given us a pretty straight-forward mission,” Hazlett stated. “To be a partner to local leaders like each one of you in this room, and that is to facilitate prosperity and economic opportunity in rural America.