The U.S. Department of Agriculture is kicking off an effort this month to improve access to billions of dollars of federal funds for rural economic and community development.
By the end of May, the Rural Partners Network will station federal field staff in over 25 rural communities to help local leaders secure federal funding for businesses, high-speed internet, clean water and electricity, and other infrastructure development projects.
“The federal government must work better for rural communities so that they can fully take advantage of these opportunities,” said White House Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice in a statement. “The Rural Partners Network will empower rural communities to get their fair share of federal funds, an important goal for not only economic development but equity as well.”
The American Rescue Plan and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law earmarked billions of dollars for rural America. However, federal funding for rural economic and community development is awarded through a patchwork of 400 programs, spread across dozens of departments, agencies, offices and sub-agencies, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank. That means applying for grants also requires time, staff and expertise, which are often limited in the communities that would benefit most. An analysis by the research group Headwaters Economics shows capacity to navigate federal programs and compete for funding is severely limited in rural areas across the U.S. RPN aims to improve capacity by stationing field staff in rural communities to assist local leaders as they navigate federal resources and address community-specific concerns.
RPN will first launch in underserved rural communities and Tribes in Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and New Mexico. USDA chose communities based on economic need and readiness to engage in the program. A second cohort of communities in Nevada, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Alaska will join the network by the end of August. If additional funding is approved, the USDA will continue to expand RPN to all 50 states and more Tribes and territories. For more information on RPN and a full list of participating communities, visit rural.gov.