Federal funds available to help rural economic development

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge could help bring funds and jobs to Southeast Missouri.

Announced by the USDA last week, the program will provide $15 million in grants to not-for-profit and government organizations in 20 regions nationwide in an effort to expand business opportunities in rural areas.

County or city governments, regional planning commissions, economic development organizations and higher education institutions are all eligible to apply for the funds. Businesses may not apply directly, but applicants can partner with the private sector to implement their proposals.

"The idea is to empower folks who can integrate and coordinate resources within their own communities," said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack during a phone interview Friday.

Thirteen federal agencies have pooled resources for the Challenge, including the Delta Regional Authority.

Dr. James Stapleton, executive director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Southeast Missouri State University, who works closely with the Delta Regional Authority, said the program will bring together public-private partnerships to improve the competitiveness of business sectors in rural regions.

"The cluster development process has emerged in recent years as a highly productive economic development tool to leverage regional assets and business growth opportunities," he said. "The specific focus on regional innovation clusters is timely as our region and the nation builds new economic sectors that will provide growth and high-wage employment into the future."

Stapleton said he's confident there will be several entities in Southeast Missouri and the surrounding regions that will apply for the funds.

Chauncy Buchheit, executive director of the Southeast Missouri Regional Planning and Economic Development Commission, said the Challenge is something his organization is taking a serious look at.

It could be a good fit for projects at area ports, transportation or alternative energy projects, Buchheit said.

According to USDA Rural Development, Stapleton said, nearly 50 million people live in nonmetropolitan areas in the U.S., so it is clear that job growth in rural areas will have a decided impact on the country's overall recovery.

"Rural regions are extremely diverse in terms of economic strength and productivity. A big challenge for most rural regions is replacing the large manufacturing employment base that began to erode in 2000," he said.

Unemployment is dropping faster in rural areas than in other parts of the country, Vilsack said. However, some Southeast Missouri counties have unemployment rates among the highest in the state.

While the state's rate in December was 8 percent, Bollinger, Stoddard, Dunklin, Mississippi and New Madrid counties' unemployment rates were all higher.

A webinar will be held March 20 for prospective applicants. More information may be found online at www.rurdev.usda.gov/RuralJobsAccelerator.... The deadline to apply for the program is May 9.

mmiller@semissourian.com

388-3646

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