United States Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is using a project in Madison County to highlight a new federal program that’s meant to promote infrastructure upgrades in rural parts of the country. The idea is to connect small communities with private money, in an effort to revitalize rural America.
The new Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund provides $10 billion from a private investment fund to help small, rural communities pay for projects, ranging from water and wastewater systems to broadband expansion. Vilsack, visiting officials in Bridgeport, says CoBank, a national cooperative bank, has committed the cash for projects that often can be too much for a rural community to handle.
“A small bank in a community may not have the capacity to fund multiple projects," Vilsack said. "May not have the capacity to do a large deal, may not have the expertise to do a large deal. So this basically gets that commercial bank to partner with CoBank, which has that
sophistication, that has the capacity, that has the personnel.”
Vilsack says the Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund can help projects like this move ahead more smoothly.
“Our goal here is to put the nation’s attention on the need for investment in rural America, to help create jobs, to stem population decline in some communities, and doing it a way that’s different and new," Vilsack said. "It isn’t just about the USDA doing business directly with Madison County, it’s about the USDA making a bridge between Madison County and CoBank."
He says the plan also promotes rural communities as places to invest.
“So it’s really about expanding," Vilsack explained. "It’s about building bridges. It’s about communicating to folks in investment bank circles, and commercial bank circles, and pension and endowment and pension and foundation and corporate circles, about opportunities that exist in rural America. They just aren’t aware.”
Madison County is using the fund to pay for a sewer expansion that’ll allow homeowners to be on a municipal sewer line. Town of Sullivan Supervisor John Becker says they couldn’t have done a deal like this on their own.
“A lot of small towns, because users are stretched out in rural areas, the infrastructure is so expensive," Becker said. "They need grant money to help out.”
The creation of the fund was announced during a White House Rural Opportunity Investment Conference in Washington last week.