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USDA pitches rural programs

One theme was predominant at a meeting hosted Thursday by U.S. Department of Agricultural Rural Development in Havre - planning and funding rural projects takes teamwork among agencies and groups.

"Dollars are tight. There is never enough to go around, particularly in rural states. We have to leverage our dollars," Tim Ryan, state director of Montana USDA Rural Development, said at the beginning of a four-hour presentation in Havre on Thursday.

Panelists talked about the results that leveraging can produce, like providing housing anddrinking water and making broadband Internet access available.

Annmarie Robinson, deputy director of Bear Paw Development Corp., said Bear Paw often works with multiple agencies, including Rural Development and many other federal and state agencies, to help communities rebuild their infrastructure, to help communities add hospital beds and assisted-living facilities, and is working to improve a Blaine County reservoir so it can be used as a fishery.

Rural Development, which has contributed more than $600 million for projects in rural Montana communities in the last five years, has a goal of helping rural America, Duncan said.

"Just know that Rural Development is a partner, that our main goal is to help rural communities survive and thrive," he said.

Most of the money Rural Development distributes goes to local government agencies, nonprofit organizations or economic development agencies, or passes through other nonprofit or for-profit organizations.

For example, Triangle Telephone Cooperative worked as a pass-through agency to help Rural Development build the Wheat Country Estates assisted- living complex in Chester.

Elvyn Wolery moved from his home of 50 years in Turner 2 years ago with his wife, Eileen, to live at the complex and be near his family in the Chester area. He said the complex offered more services, at a better price, than many others he looked at.

The complex has a nurse on staff 24 hours a day, serves them three meals a day and offers assistance in their medication while they live in an apartment in the complex.

"It isn't home, but I like it," Wolery said. "The time comes when you have to make an adjustment."

Rural Economic Development Loans and Grants loaned about $445,600 to Triangle Telephone Cooperative at a zero percent interest rate, which then loaned it to Liberty County Hospital and Nursing Home Inc. to help finance building the complex. The total cost was about $1.45 million.

The hospital also sold about $875,000 in bonds to help pay for the construction.

In the Rural Economic Development program, the entity receiving the money pays back the cooperative, but the cooperative is ultimately responsible to Rural Development to pay off the loan.

"It is a partnership that works very well in Montana," said Bill Barr, cooperative specialist for Montana USDA Rural Development

Walter Busch, chief executive officer of Liberty County Hospital, said the loan helped build a complex that has been in great demand.

"It's got 100 percent occupancy and has a waiting list," he said. "If we could add six apartments I think we could fill them right away. It certainly was needed."

Vic Miller, executive director of District IV Human Resources Development Council, said in an interview after the meeting that HRDC is working with Rural Development to fund some projects, including constructing a new building to house the Head Start program in Havre and to build some new housing in the community. He listed other projects that impact everyone in the community, like the money the city of Havre borrowed to expand and modernize its water treatment plant.

Rural Development has money available in four main areas: housing and community facilities; utilities, including rural electric companies, telecommunications systems, broadband Internet systems, water, wastewater and solid waste programs; businesses and cooperatives; and community development.

The money is available through grants, direct loans or loan guarantees. An example is a $5.5 million loan guarantee Rural Development made to Independence Bank so it could loan money to the tribal council of Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation to build new health care facilities.

Miles Hamilton, executive vice president at Independence Bank, said the loan guarantees allow banks to give their clients loans that normally the bank couldn't make. That allows local groups and governments like the Rocky Boy and Fort Belknap tribal governments to continue to work with banks that they are familiar with, he said.

Other programs also impact banking customers. One panel at Thursday's meeting discussed loans, loan guarantees and grants for single- and multiple- family housing. Rural Development, working with many other government and private organizations, helps people buy homes or build residences to rent out at low rates, Deborah Chorlton and Laura Horn of Rural Development said.

Lynda Taplin, vice president at Heritage Bank, said the Havre banks that participate use the Rural Development programs to help many people buy homes, often with no closing costs coming out of the buyer's pocket and with discounted interest rates for people whose incomes are low enough to qualify.

"We like them. They're good programs," she said. "Can you imagine having $500 and buying a new home? That's what this allows."

Paul Tuss, executive director of Bear Paw Development, said it all comes down to partnership.

Tuss said Bear Paw helps plan and build projects including infrastructure development, small business creation and expansion, and home repair. It does that by working with a multitude of groups like Rural Development, he said.

"We don't do that in a vacuum," he said.

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