By Bob Morgan
USDA Rural Development State Director in Pennsylvania
If the past few weeks are any indication of things to come, Pennsylvania has found a partner that sees the value of investing in our rural communities. This partner may be from an agency that not many Americans might expect, the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
When Americans hear USDA, they usually think of food and farming. However, USDA is made up of 29 agencies with nearly 100,000 employees, who serve at more than 4,500 locations across the country and abroad. The Rural Development mission at USDA administers more than 50 economic development programs and investments in Pennsylvania have been steadily increasing in 2021 under the agency’s Build Back Better initiative.
Over the last four fiscal years USDA Rural Development has invested more than $3.5 billion in rural Pennsylvania through its loan and grant programs helping to expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas by supporting: infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety, and health care; and high-speed internet access.
For example, on Dec. 16, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a $5.2 billion investment in rural America’s critical infrastructure. This good news included grants and loans for Pennsylvania, in the amount of $11.3 million for three water and waste disposal projects in Tioga, Westmoreland, and Venango Counties. These projects will improve communities by providing new pipes for water systems and necessary upgrades for waste water treatment. Since 2018, USDA has invested more than $211 million through these Rural Development programs.
The Biden-Harris administration has made infrastructure and critical agriculture supply chain investments a priority. Recently Secretary Vilsack announced the deployment of $100 million under a new Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program. This initiative funded through the American Rescue Plan Act, will provide loan guarantees to spur private investment in processing and food supply infrastructure that strengthens the food supply chain.
This is on top of a $500 million investment to expand meat and poultry processing capacity, which is vital to Pennsylvania producers. The Department will soon publish details on the new program and how to apply as part of USDA’s Build Back Better Initiative, a comprehensive plan to invest $4 billion to strengthen the resiliency of America’s food supply chain while promoting competition.
USDA also supports local efforts to adapt to our changing climate as evidenced this month during Secretary Vilsack’s visit to Saubel’s Market in York County. During his visit to the family-owned store in Shrewsbury, Pa., the Secretary announced $1 million to reduce the impacts of climate change on rural communities in Pennsylvania through the Rural Energy for America Program or REAP. Saubel’s Market received a $102,413 USDA REAP grant. With this funding, the small business installed solar panels on the roof of their family-owned grocery store a project which is expected to save enough energy to power 36 homes annually. Twenty-one other farms and businesses in Pennsylvania recently received REAP awards. Over the last four years Rural Development’s REAP and other energy efficiency progams distributed more than $9.7 million for 140 projects.
Moving from energy savings to saving lives, in healthcare, in 2018, there were 66 acute care hospitals with roughly 7,200 beds available in rural areas of the commonwealth, according to data compiled by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. Seven counties did not have hospitals. On average, there were 2.14 hospital beds for every 1,000 rural residents. Rural Development has been determined to combat this problem.
St. Luke’s Carbon Campus Hospital opened its doors in November 2021. The 160,000-square-foot facility with 80 patient rooms is redefining health care access, convenience, and quality for the local community. This state of the art facility allows patients to experience their entire health care journey from primary to specialized care in a single location.
The trauma-4 rated hospital will also create new jobs and allow for recruitment of physicians from across the country. The project was funded in 2019 and consisted of a $98,500,000 Community Facilities Direct Loan which will be repaid by the borrower.
In 2020, Rural Development invested in the construction of a 240-bed three-story skilled nursing facility in Centre County (Centre Care, Incorporated) that serves a significant portion of the Medicaid population in the area. Also, Rural Development funded a new, 123-unit assisted living facility in Bucks County (LifeQuest). Since 2018, the Rural Development Community Facilities program has administered more than $293 million in health care loans within Pennsylvania.
USDA Rural Development is firmly committed to fulfilling the promise of improving opportunity for rural communities through the agency’s Build Back Better initiative, and we look forward to making further investments in Pennsylvania in 2022.