Mention to folks that federal agencies work well together and you may receive reactions of disbelief. Sometimes the federal employees, themselves, don’t believe it. But there was a roomful of believers at a recent USDA Rural Roundtable held in Ogden, Iowa.
I held more than 40 roundtables across rural Iowa last year, modeled after the roundtables of the White House Business Council and the White House Rural Council. These roundtables provided a great opportunity to talk with rural residents, business owners and leaders about the issues facing their communities – and the opportunities that exist.
The Ogden roundtable, however, was more than a USDA Rural Development affair.
I was joined by Steve Eggleston, the Iowa/Nebraska field office director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and David Doyle, the Sustainable Communities Coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 7 office in Kansas City.
It just so happens that EPA, HUD and USDA participate, along with the Department of Transportation (DOT), in the Partnership for Sustainable Communities – a federal inter-agency effort that focuses on providing more transportation choices; promoting equitable, affordable housing; enhancing economic competitiveness; supporting existing communities; coordinating and leveraging federal policies and investment; and valuing communities and neighborhoods.
In fact, Rural Development and EPA have collaborated in Ogden, on redevelopment planning and reuse of a previously-abandoned gas station at the entryway into their downtown which also happens to be the route of the old Lincoln Highway. A market analysis and needs study also recognized possible reuse of several other downtown brownfields properties as the site of a new medical clinic. This collaboration in Ogden has become a model of how federal investments can spur reinvestment in communities, and Ogden Mayor Keith Berg said the impact on his community has been tremendous. There are projects brewing, but he said there is also a new energy that did not exist a few years ago.
Thanks to that prior collaboration, the idea that federal agencies could work well together did not come as a surprise to the 17 attendees who came from a four-county area. In fact, it may have raised expectations for the audience – who raised issues ranging from rural broadband to housing to health care. As each issue was introduced, audience members looked at each of the federal officials – wondering how we could help. In some instances, there is little that can be done (“Don’t look at me!” chuckled the EPA’s David Doyle when the issue of broadband funding was raised). In others, there are opportunities for agencies to leverage their programs to maximize benefits to the community.
But, it was made clear by the roundtable participants in Ogden that challenges do exist in rural Iowa. Cities and counties are working with reduced budgets, access to capital can be difficult, and affordable housing remains an issue. Also, high-speed broadband can make or break a rural community! One area business owner said she and her husband moved from Colorado to Jefferson, Iowa, in part, because of the availability of broadband. Places without those high-speed connections may be left behind.
And, as those in the room described the issues and possible solutions, we from USDA, HUD and EPA talked about what we each could offer – how we could work together – and how that cooperation could best impact rural communities. And as one participant reminded me afterward – “Don’t forget -- you all play for the same team!”