01/18/09 — Officials ask feds for help for rural areas

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Officials ask feds for help for rural areas

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 18, 2009 2:00 AM

With the 111th Congress beginning to discuss the possibility of a second stimulus package worth billions of dollars, North Carolina officials are working to make sure the state's rural communities are not overlooked.

Speaking during a roundtable discussion hosted in Washington D.C. by Rep. Mike McIntyre, D-N.C., chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture's Subcommittee on Specialty Crops, Rural Development and Foreign Agriculture last week, Billy Ray Hall, president of the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, emphasized the need to keep rural communities in mind when approving any economic stimulus programs.

"It's important to understand that rural areas need at least as much as urban, if not more, especially in North Carolina," Hall said, noting in particular the higher unemployment rates of the state's rural counties.

Hall explained that his testimony focused on five things the federal government could do to help rural communities.

n Invest in infrastructure such as roads, water and sewer, broadband technology, transportation and schools.

"I think that's a critical area for investment, especially when you look at the backlog of needs," he said. "And we can create immediate jobs."

n Invest in small business, which make up 98 percent of all North Carolina businesses.

That means, he explained, expansion of federal funding of small business assistance programs and small business disaster loans.

"It's important because small businesses are facing the need for operating capital," he said.

n Invest in high impact businesses, such as defense industries, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, green jobs and advanced manufacturing.

Such areas, he explained, have the potential to help make rural areas competitive now and in the future -- but only if investments are made to attract such businesses and train the work force.

n Invest in rural workers through work force training programs, such as those found at community colleges.

Already, he said, community college enrollment is up an average of 6.5 percent across North Carolina. But funding, he noted, is based on last year's enrollment and is facing potential cuts next year.

"A lot of people need that training you get at the community college to keep the jobs they have," he said, adding that it's also necessary for many people to advance.

n Ensure that rural America gets a fair shake in the overall stimulus program.

The first part of that, he said, is "a fair and equitable distribution of funds to rural communities."

That means, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, if 20 percent of the population is considered to be living in rural areas, then 20 percent of the stimulus program should be geared to those rural areas.

However, Hall, a Mount Olive native, noted that he believes that figure to be too low.

In North Carolina, he explained that according to the state Legislature's definition, about 45 percent of the population is considered to be rural -- those living in the 85 counties, including Wayne, with less than 250 people per square mile. That means, he continued, approximately 45 percent of any stimulus money coming into North Carolina should go its rural communities, which are located primarily in the east and west.

The second part of ensuring a fair and equitable distribution of funds, he explained, is making sure people are educated and made aware of what programs are being made available.

And finally, he added, the third part is for the government to take a careful look at what projects should be funded through loans and which -- critical and essential needs -- should be funded through grants.

It is, he said, a message he will be preaching until the final decisions are made on the stimulus package.

"My first job is to make sure they know what our needs are," Hall said. "I think they're taking it seriously."

And, confirmed McIntyre, who represents U.S. House District 7, which includes Duplin County, they are.

"My greatest concern is that rural America not be forgotten in the discussion of any type of economic stimulus package," he said. "I'm encouraged, though, that our voices are being heard."

Agreeing with the ideas presented by Hall, he emphasized the fact that so many of the needs of rural America and rural North Carolina are those that are also the shovel-ready, immediate-impact type projects President-elect Barack Obama is looking for.

Currently, McIntyre said, there are 500 water and sewer projects nationwide that have been certified and are ready to go, and another 700 community building projects -- schools, libraries, hospitals, medical clinics, fire and rescue and police buildings, assisted living facilities, community centers and transportation projects -- that are in the review process.

And in North Carolina, Hall said, there are:

n $1.6 billion water and sewer projects ready to go -- $751 million of which are in 67 of the state's 85 rural counties.

n $1.4 billion in ready-to-go road projects.

n $9.8 billion in school construction needs through 2011.

n a number of areas with less than 70 percent broadband connectivity.

"These are not special interest type of projects," McIntyre said. "These will immediately create jobs and improve the quality of life for our citizens."

He added that the goal is to have the stimulus bill passed through Congress by mid February, but he did not have an estimate on how much the final package might total.