Havre Daily News/Tim Leeds
U.S. Housing and Urban Development Helena Field Office Director Erik Amundson talks to Opportunity Link Inc. Executive Director Barb Stiffarm Tuedsay before a ceremony at Stone Child College on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation to present a $1.5 million grant check to the poverty-fighting organization.
The north-central Montana anti-poverty organization received high praise Tuesday, with the head of a U.S. Housing and Urban Development division traveling from Washington, D.C., to present a check for $1.5 million to Opportunity Link Inc.
“It’s true, we planned about 20 events around the country to announce these grants, and this is the one I put my dibs on — because I really was unbelievably impressed with the proposal that you submitted for this grant program, ” Shelley Poticha, director of HUD’s Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities said in her opening remarks.
Poticha presented the check during a ceremony at Stone Child College on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation. She said she wanted to congratulate the partners that have worked on projects to create sustainable communities and strengthen the economies in north-central Montana.
Poticha and Erik Amundson, director of HUD’s field office in Helena, said there was significant competition with hundreds of applications for grants through HUD’s sustainable communities grants program. Opportunity Link was one of 29 regional grants awarded.
“We were able to fund the full amount that you requested, partially
… because you knocked our socks off in terms of what you said you wanted to do with our funding, but it also really helped that you have brought together local resources, in a local match, that showed dedication and commitment to working on the challenges of this region, ” Poticha said.
Opportunity Link was created after The Northwest Area Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, awarded millions in a 10-year grant to create a poverty-fighting organization for north-central Montana. Opportunity Link works in Blaine, Cascade, Chouteau, Glacier, Hill, Judith Basin, Liberty, Phillips, Pondera, Teton and Toole counties as well as the Blackfeet, Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy reservations.
The organization has had success in its first few years of operation, including the creation of the North Central Montana Transit bus system, work on studying and promoting the creation and use of alternative fuels, work on increasing energy efficiency of buildings in the area, promoting recycling and facilitating the creation and use of the YouthBuild program in corraboration with Montana State University-Northern, Stone Child College and local K-12 school districts. Opportunity Link also regularly puts on, sponsors or hosts meetings, seminars and training sessions in a variety of areas.
Barb Stiffarm, executive director of Opportunity Link, said the organization’s work is key to creating a sustainable future in the area.
She said she is blessed with children and grandchildren, and for many years focused on making sure they had the opportunity for a good education and a chance to go on to higher education.
“I was so focused on that that I forgot about creating the opportunity that they needed so they could stay here and become community members, ” Stiffarm said. “This is their community. They have to be given that opportunity to stay here. ”
Representatives of Montana’s U. S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester read statements from the lawmakers.
Baucus likened the work of Opportunity Link to what the 12-member deficit reduction committee he was part of was trying to do.
“I have two words to describe Opportunity Link — partnership and perseverance, ” Baucus said in his statement.
He said the federal deficit is a challenge that requires people to think about shared sacrifice and “how to tighten the belt without eating our seed corn …. I believe research, innovation, education and proper planning are key components of our ability to create new opportunities now and good-paying jobs for generations to come. Today, Opportunity Link is doing all this and more. ”
Tester complimented the organization for its work and success in the application.
“Sustaining Communities usually goes to urban areas, ” he said. “But this award demonstrates a commitment to supporting economic development and creating jobs in rural communities. ”
Poticha also commented on the need for — and Opportunity Link’s success in — creating partnerships to sustain rural areas. That showed in the successful application, she added.
“You beat out some of the big guys across the country who have been resting on their laurels... saying they are collaborating when maybe they really aren't, ” Poticha said.
Greg Kegel, dean of the College of Technical Sciences at Montana State University-Northern, said the grant could help with planning and implementing strategies to capitalize on what could revolutionize the local economy.
Northern has been making breakthroughs on research to make fuels out of oilseeds that can be grown throughout the Golden Triangle and across Montana, Kegel said. But that can’t be capitalized on until there are facilities in the region to crush the seeds and make the fuel.
“We’ve got this huge expanse of farmland to grow energy, ” Kegel said. “There’s no reason we can’t grow oil seeds in this region to sustain the region … .
“We know we can put together at least a system of fuels, but we need more planning to do that, ” Kegel added. “We’re hoping that this grant will provide the planning that it's going to take to get some developers to come in and put together more crushing facilities and more production plants. ”
Poticha said the grant program — just in its second year of funding — is designed to give great flexibility to the local communities in how the money would be used.
“It's caused this phenomenal interest around the country, and I think it’s important because, for the first time, the federal government is really attempting to reach our hand out in partnership, ” she said. “We are offering very, very flexible funding that allows you to determine the best use of the funds. ”
Bruce Sunchild Sr., chair of the Chippewa Cree Tribe’s council at Rocky Boy, said continuing to collaborate could create new opportunities in the region.
“With all of these communities working together, I think we can sustain this economy that we have here …, ” Sunchild said. “There are a lot of things to be proud of, but we've got a long road ahead of us. ”
Stiffarm also stressed the impact of cooperation. The key is finding ways to grow the economy and make the local communities sustainable, and the grant will provide funds to plan for that over the next three years.
“You're offering to be part of that vision, to make sure that our futures are here and that our children can grow in that, ” she told the people at the meeting. “We might have lines and separation, but this is all part of a common ground where we’re all living here together, part of this region, part of this state, part of this nation. ”