Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on Feb. 13, 2009, in response to one of the greatest economic challenges the U.S. has faced since the Great Depression. It has been a difficult period for the country and certainly, here in Maine. Rural communities are often the hardest hit in very challenging economic times, which is where U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development has played a significant role in sustaining rural Maine.
Our agency invested more than $267 million in Maine’s rural communities through the act. We know that this has made a big difference in helping to promote community competitiveness, support business retention and expansion, support homeownership and family security, provide broadband to unserved communities and increase distance learning and health care services throughout Maine.
The impact of these dollars has been felt at nearly every level of Maine’s rural communities. Our motto is that USDA Rural Development “builds communities from the ground up.” We do this by financing or guaranteeing home loans for families around Maine, by financing loan guarantees and grants or making direct loans for community wastewater and water infrastructure and essential community facilities, and by guaranteeing bank loans to businesses and supporting renewable energy projects.
The total dollar amount that Rural Development invested in Maine under ARRA can obscure the impact of specific projects in our rural areas. For instance, $46.9 million was invested in water and wastewater infrastructure, resulting in upgrades to 25 rural water systems, ensuring residents safe drinking water, properly working systems and protecting the environment. Nearly $7 million went to sustain 14 essential community facilities, including rural hospitals, libraries and first responders; 1,412 people who never thought homeownership was a possibility became proud homeowners through the agency’s housing programs. And $8.4 million was invested through the business programs, resulting in 331 jobs created and saved and 39 businesses assisted.
Our funds helped to preserve both quality of life and quality of place.
For example, the town of Brownville, which is home to 1,259 residents, received $1.7 million to update an old water system, replacing old, undersized components that were in poor condition. In addition, this project provided a backup water source and generators for the town, ensuring a water supply even in the case of an emergency. An estimated 26 much-needed jobs were created through construction.
The Swan’s Island community was devastated when its historic library, circa 1903, was hit by lightning and burned to the ground in July 2008. It was Recovery Act funds, through a USDA Rural Development Community Facility Grant of $398,000, that will rebuild the new library, a true staple of this tiny island community.
Other notable community facility projects assisted through the Recovery Act promote health in Maine’s rural areas through services and equipment such as a brand-new digital mammography machine for Calais Regional Hospital funded by a $200,000 grant, which will aid in early detection of breast cancer and prevent patients from having to travel 90 miles to receive similar services. There also was $330,300 invested in upgrades to health care centers on the Passamoquoddy reservations at Pleasant Point and Indian Township, ensuring higher-quality health care for tribal members.
Broadband infrastructure, too, plays a critical role in the growth and prosperity of our rural communities. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, $9.4 million in grant funds were provided to West Penobscot Telephone and Telegraph Co., Somerset Telephone Co., and Hartland and St. Albans Telephone Co. to bring high-speed DSL broadband to 2,371 unserved rural households and 113 rural businesses in Somerset and western Penobscot counties.
Maine businesses have benefited from Recovery Act funding as well. One such business is Maine Apple Co. LLC, which used a $1.75 million loan to acquire equipment for use in the production and processing of apples, spread over more than 450 acres of both owned and managed orchards throughout Oxford, Kennebec and Cumberland counties. This important funding helped to save 96 jobs.
Behind each of these Rural Development and ultimately Mainers’ success stories lay many more examples of communities revitalized and lives affected through American Recovery and Reinvestment Act dollars. Whether it is having access to clean drinking water, receiving quality medical care, owning a home, accessing broadband or sustaining employment in Maine businesses, the positive impact that the act has had on Maine communities is real and will be felt for many years to come.
Virginia Manuel is state director of U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development in Maine.