MOSES LAKE, Wash. — The Washington state Director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program told a gathering of rural community leaders that he often uses the old punch line, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” as an icebreaker with rural audiences. Mario Villanueva said the line usually gets him a laugh. Then he gets down to business.
“Really we don’t want to say we’re here to help, we really want to be helpers,” said Villanueva, keynote speaker at the Rural Reflections Summit held recently in Moses Lake. “I’m here to tell you tonight that we are looking to partner with rural communities and organizations. We are looking to develop strategic initiatives in the areas of our primary focus.”
Community leaders and volunteers from most of the 40 Washington small, rural communities that have participated in the Horizons Program attended the summit. The program, which is funded by the Northwest Area Foundation and delivered by Washington State University Extension, trains community volunteers in leadership and strategies for reducing poverty and strengthening their communities.
Villanueva told the more than 200 people attending that new opportunities are available for rural community projects, thanks to new priorities and an influx of resources.
“Last year in Washington with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and regular program funds USDA Rural Development invested about $616 million in housing, community facilities, business, loans and grants and guarantees,” he said. “WE have a time limit to get recovery act funding out by September.”
When they are done, Villanueva said, USDA-RD will have deployed $1.1 billion for community facilities and grants, $3.7 billion for water and waste water treatment loans and grants, $1.94 billion in grants plus $7.16 billion in loans for broadband investment, $3.9 billion in guaranteed business loans, and $11.2 billion in for single family housing loans.
“That’s what ARRA will bring to rural communities across the United State,” he said.
Villanueva said that his “marching orders” from federal leaders are to pursue priorities of supporting strong rural economic development, promoting rural leadership in alternative energy development, developing rural broadband services, and investing in teachers and rural education.
Villanueva said that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack told him that USDA-RD has to be about more than making loans and grants, and deploying programs.
“What he said was that we have to reach out to rural America to help transform it, to help it become what we know it can be, ” he said. “We’re committed to being advocates and problems solvers, and if there is any way we can make a project work in a community without wasting money (we want to be good stewards of the resources), we’ve got to find a way to make it work, to make it so.”
Villanueva said that community building is an essential effort of their effort.
“We in the government don’t know what’s needed at the local level; the local people know what’s best at the local level,” he told the audience. “The way we work is to engage with community partners such as WSU Extension to talk about your initiatives and goals and how we can blend them with ours and other funders to make the best impact.”
Villanueva urged local communities to contact one of USDA-RD’s seven regional offices In the state for more information and assistance. Locations, and more information about programs for rural communities, can be found at http://www.rurdev.usda.gov/wa.
More information about the WSU Extension Horizons program is at http://horizons.wsu.edu.