MARSHALL - Despite being a strong advocate for economic development in rural Minnesota, United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development is not a well-known organization.
Since being appointed to her position in July 2009, State Director Colleen Landkamer has tried to change that and has overseen $2.5 billion invested in Minnesota. A lot of that investment took place in southwest Minnesota.
"Sometimes, I think we're the best secret there is and that's the last thing we want," Landkamer said. "We want people to know about us."
USDA Rural Development is federally funded, partly through the Farm Bill and partly from appropriations.
"People see USDA and think meat inspectors and commodities," said Adam Czech, Rural Development public affairs specialist. "Our state is great in so many ways, and we want to keep it that way."
Though facing budget challenges and staff reductions, Rural Development is starting to see a record-level of interest in its programs.
"I'm hoping that people understand the importance of the investment we're making," Landkamer said. "We are an economic engine for rural Minnesota. We really are."
Rural Development assists with infrastructure and facilities in communities in addition to helping finance businesses, renewable energy, housing and high-speed Internet.
"Water systems are really important in southwest Minnesota," Landkamer said. "Part of the challenge is making sure people know about our programs and how we can be of assistance. None of us can do it by ourselves anymore, so partnerships need to be built."
Some of the projects since 2009 include a $17 million investment to add nearly 1,000 new users to the Lincoln-Pipestone Rural Water System and $2 million water and sewer improvement to the Lower Sioux Indian community.
Approximately $600,000 was invested with Western Community Action in Marshall to remodel a vacant building into a new headquarters, which also serves as a local food shelf.
"There's a lot of work that needs to get done," Landkamer said. "We want to make sure rural Minnesota stays strong and grows. Working together is critical."
Rural Development contributed $180,000 for the purchase of a new fire truck in Canby, $150,000 to renovate an existing building into a new library in Lake Benton and $19,000 for a storm siren in Woodstock.
"We do community facilities, like libraries, hospitals, daycare centers, fire stations and emergency vehicles like fire trucks," Landkamer said. "We can kind of take a community and assist in building it and enhancing it."
Rural Development can also guarantee loans, like it did when Worthington built a new YMCA building, or assist with business loans and a limited amount of grants. The organization offers support for entrepreneurs just starting up or large businesses looking to expand.
"We kind of run the gamut," Landkamer said. "It's all about creating jobs. That's what we do. It really does make a huge difference."
Monogram Meat Snacks in Chandler recently benefited from a loan guarantee to provide working capital, as did Minnesota Soybean Processors, who received support for the production of advanced biofuels and Minnesota farmers and small businesses who have received a combined $50 million through the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) since 2003, most of which was invested in southwest Minnesota.
"Southwest Minnesota has done very well with renewable energy and energy efficiency," Landkamer said. "Renewable energy is critical for wealth creation in rural Minnesota and also for decreasing our dependence on foreign oil."
Rural Development also assists with both single and multi-family housing, in the form of loan guarantees, direct loans or home repair programs.
"You build a house and people think that's done, but it isn't because those people continue to be contributing members of that community," Landkamer said. "They pay property tax and are involved and engaged in the community. They work there and shop there."
Since 2010, Rural Development has helped nearly 1,200 individuals and families in southwest Minnesota achieve home-ownership or make needed home repairs. The organization also oversees the management of about 250 multi-family apartment buildings in southwest Minnesota.
"We work one-on-one with low- and very low-income people to make sure they can afford to be in a house," Landkamer said. "It doesn't do anybody any good to get into a house and then lose it. It's all about making sure people have a safe, affordable roof."
A few of the newer contributions to rural Minnesota is Broadband access and Distance Learning and Telemedicine programs. The Rural Development programs are only delivered in rural Minnesota, Landkamer said, but the importance of partnerships with urban and suburban is realized.
"We all have to be strong, otherwise our state doesn't do well," she said. "Broadband makes such a difference. You can live in a community that is pretty small and still do international business. That kind of levels the playing field."
Telemedicine allows medical personnel to receive direction from alternate sources. Someone at the Mayo Clinic could advise someone in a rural area, including ambulance staff.
Distance Learning provides opportunities for advanced learning via electronic resources. In Feb., Southwest/West Central Service Cooperative was awarded a $369,906 grant to support Distance Learning in 17 southwest Minnesota school districts.
There are 13 Rural Development offices in Minnesota, including those in Marshall (507-532-3234, ext. 4), Worthington and Willmar.