OPINION | Recovery Act brought rural Minnesota valuable improvements


When people talk about the federal stimulus (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), they typically point to the large dollar amounts first. Then they begin examining how much has been invested in a certain sector of the economy, along with how much has gone to a specific geographic region or area. Mixed in with the dialogue about dollars are usually discussions about jobs, overall impact and, of course, whether the Recovery Act was a good or bad idea.

Unfortunately, the scope of these discussions can obscure the real value that projects funded by the Recovery Act have had. This is especially true in rural Minnesota.

As State Director for USDA Rural Development, I oversee a staff of about 115 who work throughout rural Minnesota on projects that create jobs and promote economic development. We provide loans, grants and loan guarantees to finance homes, essential community facilities, water and wastewater treatment systems, high-speed Internet, loan guarantees for local businesses, renewable energy and other projects that improve rural Minnesotans’ quality of life.

During the last two years, we received additional Recovery Act funding for seven of the more than 40 programs Rural Development administers. We used this additional funding to finance many projects throughout Minnesota that we otherwise would not have been able to support.

For example, over $21 million in Recovery Act funds helped finance a new 105-bed senior care center for PioneerCare in Fergus Falls. PioneerCare’s current facility was built in the 1920s and no longer meets the needs of seniors in the community. Once the new facility is completed, PioneerCare will be able provide state-of-the-art care that will help Fergus Falls retain its senior residents and save or create valuable healthcare jobs in the region.

The city of Granite Falls used over $14 million in Recovery Act funds to replace its drinking water treatment system. The city’s old system was built in the 1920s and was located on a floodplain. When flooding occurred, the citizens of Granite Falls were often left without safe drinking water for weeks. The new plant is being built away from the floodplain and will both meet the city’s current treatment needs and accommodate future population growth.

The city of Adrian in southwestern Minnesota recently saw its local pharmacy close. Adrian had the services of a hometown pharmacy for over 100 years, and its loss was a major blow to the community. Using $100,000 in Recovery Act funds, Adrian was able to work with Sterling Drug in nearby Worthington to establish a telepharmacy. Using video, audio and data technology, a pharmacist at a central location in Worthington oversees the filling and verifying of prescriptions by a technician at the telepharmacy in Adrian. Images captured at the remote location allow the pharmacist to review, approve and document all transactions. One-on-one patient consultations are also conducted using the ScriptPro® Telepharmacy technology. The telepharmacy preserved jobs in the community and retained a service that residents have counted on for years.

In Lake County in Northeastern Minnesota, over $66 million in Recovery Act funds will deliver high-speed Internet services to 15,000 homes, 1,100 businesses and 100 essential community facilities. In all of rural Minnesota, about $195 million in Recovery Act funds were used to deliver high-speed Internet services to about 164,000 homes, 11,500 businesses and 685 community facilities. Access to high-speed Internet means rural areas can remain competitive and offer new opportunities in education, telemedicine and business development.

Believe me, the Minnesotan’s benefiting from these four projects understand first-hand the Recovery Act’s scope and the importance. Even better, the Recovery Act allowed Rural Development to invest an additional $675 million in projects throughout Minnesota. These investments include:

• $330 million to help over 2,600 individuals and families buy homes or refinance existing home loans;

• $85 million to improve or replace 26 water and wastewater treatment systems;

• $36 million in loan guarantees that allowed nine businesses to create or save about 750 jobs;

• $31 million to build or repair 33 essential community facilities, including hospitals, community centers and libraries;

• $1 million in Rural Business Enterprise Grants to assist small rural businesses with gap financing.

When digesting these numbers, please remember how large an impact these dollars have had on the lives of rural Minnesotans. These investments immediately created jobs during construction periods. They also established a base for long-term economic development and more jobs. Many of these projects will result in better healthcare in rural areas or increased access to a quality education.

Obviously, these are difficult economic times, especially in rural areas. But thanks to the Recovery Act, we have been able to take important steps to get our economy back on track.

Colleen Landkamer is the state director of USDA Rural Development in Minnesota.