Screenshot of Iowa television coverage in advance of the president's visit today (April 12, 2022) as part of his roll-out of the "Rural Playbook." (KCCI-Des Moines)

The Biden Administration announced a multi-agency effort yesterday (April 11, 2022) to help rural communities get access to billions of dollars in local funding made available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Congress passed last year.

The “Rural Playbook” provides rural communities with information on the “what, when, where, and how to apply” for infrastructure funds. The administration is promoting the initiative with a 30-stop rural infrastructure tour led by the president and cabinet officials. The first leg of the tour goes through Iowa today (April 12, 2022).

“Supporting Americans living in rural areas remains a top priority for the Biden administration,” the White House stated during a national press conference outlining the initiative. The statement said infrastructure law will help with high-speed internet, roads and bridges, modern wastewater systems, clean drinking water, electricity, and jobs “in every rural community.”

Rural economic and community development advocates whom the Daily Yonder contacted were pleased with the release of the Rural Roadmap, saying the effort could help rural communities that are often left out of federal funding opportunities.

“I’m really excited about the Roadmap because it provides significant resources to open up funding and infrastructure projects to rural communities where we work, places that have historically been locked out of federal grants because of lack of grantwriting or administration,” said Ines Polonius, CEO of the nonprofit community development organization Communities Unlimited. Polonius said many of the low-wealth rural counties where the organization works lack expertise in applying for an managing federal grants.

Communities Unlimited is a rural Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) and Rural Development Hub serving Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Tennessee.

“What we’re seeing is a new level of awareness from this administration at the federal agency level, some real understanding about the need for capacity building in rural communities, the need to fill the gaps in program delivery,” Polonius said.

The Brookings Institution’s Tony Pipa, who has previously called for re-imagining and streamlining rural policy at the federal level, said in an email that the Playbook is an “excellent first step” in empowering rural people to identify programs and requirements they need to improve their communities.

“I am heartened that the administration recognizes and is taking seriously the challenges that rural communities, many of which have limited staff and limited experience accessing and managing federal resources, face in trying to navigate a complex piece of legislation full of opportunities for their communities,” Pipa said.

He said the president’s rural tour can “add to this momentum, to listen to local leaders and practitioners and seek to address the barriers they might face.”

Rural Playbook resources include agency-specific fact sheets for rural infrastructure grant programs, as well as documentation of rural set-asides for specific pools of funding or waivers on matching fund requirements, often another impediment faced by rural communities. Rural-specific fact sheets are available for the following agencies:

“This is a critically important issue for rural communities that often cannot access available funds because of the cost and bureaucratic complications,” said Matt Hildreth in a statement released by RuralOrganizing.org. “We know from our work that the Biden administration can learn a lot by talking to the local officials who are trying to successfully implement these programs.”

For Communities Unlimited, the gap in funding and capacity often means that worthwhile rural projects aren’t even eligible for federal funding, according to Polonius. Water and wastewater projects, for instance, often require $100,000 pre-development engineering and design documents before they can even apply for federal grants. High-speed internet projects require expensive mapping and technical diagnostics.

Rural advocates also said that they would like to see this approach expanded to other programs and agencies. Hildreth mentioned the need for passage of the recently proposed Rural Prosperity Act, a bipartisan bill that would create a permanent White House Office of Rural Prosperity. Polonius brought up her continued support for the Rural Partnership Program, which was proposed last year as part of the  failed Build Back Better Act, as a program she hopes will be included in the 2023 Farm Bill.

Polonius also sees the Rural Playbook as an important public education tool. “There’s an additional level of accountability brought to the table with the roadmap,” she said. “Rural voters can see where the infrastructure money is supposed to be spent, and then see where the money is actually spent. Does it make a difference in their communities?”

The Rural Playbook tour kicked off yesterday as well. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland held an event in Colorado, along with Colorado elected officials and the U.S. Forest Service chief, focused on wildfires, forest management, conservation programs, and federal support for climate mitigation and ecosystem restoration included in the infrastructure bill. Haaland and others also discussed progress on the administration’s America the Beautiful initiative, a locally led, voluntary land restoration project.

The Rural Playbook tour rollout continues today (Apri 12, 2022), with President Biden visiting Iowa for a number of events. Biden, who hasn’t visited the state since the 2020 election, is expected to tout the infrastructure bill’s $5 billion for Iowa, as well as support for the biofuels industry.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (who is currently positive for Covid-19 and unable to attend Biden’s Iowa events), Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu and other senior administration officials will take part in other Rural Playbook events throughout the next few week.

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