A slew of officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office visited Lewis County Friday to tell local leaders about the dozens of programs administered by the agency — important funding sources, but part of a complex, difficult-to-navigate system.
“We run in over 40 different programs,” said Kirk Pearson, state director for the Rural Development program. “A lot of these impact you and what you do. … We want to make things easy, because we know there are a lot of roadblocks.”
Pearson and his team outlined programs available to areas like Lewis County, covering everything from housing to infrastructure to business development to broadband. Their hour-long presentation found a receptive audience at a monthly Mayors Meeting of elected officials from throughout the county.
One topic of particular interest was broadband, which has long been a source of frustration within the county. Tim O’Connell, the agency’s West Region Community Economic Development Coordinator, spoke extensively about various funding sources available.
He acknowledged that it’s not always easy to navigate different grant and loan programs with different requirements and qualifications, especially as federal, state and private sources intertwine. Along with the other USDA leaders, he encouraged locals to take business cards and reach out, rather than trying to figure out the bureaucracy on their own.
“The important thing is to get that list of contacts,” he said. “Our role is project development at this stage, to see where the puzzle pieces fit, to match those resources.”
County Commissioner Edna Fund said that challenge — determining eligibility for different programs and knowing what funding is available — needs to be addressed in a more user-friendly way.
“Know who to call,” she said. “With the state coming in, how do we coordinate? ... Hopefully we can settle out, if you want to do this, this is where you apply for this money, this is where you apply for this, what grant match is necessary.”
Pearson said the agency would be open to making a return visit, with a specific focus on broadband, with the intention of simplifying that process. And even before a formalized meeting, USDA community programs specialist Koni Reynolds urged local leaders to give her a call.
“Reach out to us,” she said. “We’re all happy to come out and talk to you, discuss projects and whatever’s going on. … We know enough to get you to the right person you need to talk to to get help.”
As broadband Internet has become more important, many have noted the difficulty and severe expense in bringing access to rural areas. ToledoTel sales engineer Fred Rider noted that many underserved areas already have fiber lines running through them, but local companies have no way to tap into that connection.
“There’s places where there’s four companies that have fiber on a pole in an underserved area, and we can’t access that,” he said. “(With allowance for a reciprocity agreement), we could do bigger and better things. … If somebody wanted to connect into that and we could connect into theirs, ToledoTel would sit at the table with any or all of these people.”
Chehalis Mayor Dennis Dawes also expressed frustration at the situation, and USDA officials acknowledged redundant but unusable infrastructure was a problem that needed more attention.
Meanwhile, local leaders heard from business programs specialist Jeff Peterson about opportunities for business development. Mary Traxler, multi-family housing program director, and Trudy Teter, single family housing program director, talking about various housing programs available.
The long list of programs discussed may have led to more questions than answers, but Pearson said his team is committed to connecting Lewis County to as many resources as possible.
“We continue to work with you, we try to identify the problems,” he said. “We’re here with you and we’ll work with you. We’re not doing a song and dance and running out of town.”