Clay County may receive $200,000 HUD block funds

Clay County may receive $200,000 HUD block funds If a U.S. Senate bill passes, Clay County would receive at least $200,000 annually to bolster its economic-development efforts.

The Rural and Remote Community Fairness Act, introduced by Sen. Tom Daschle (D-SD), sets aside $50 million in block grants.

The money is reserved for rural counties and Indian tribes suffering severe population losses and low per-capita income levels.

An estimated 200 counties and tribes � including 17 from South Dakota � will qualify nationwide for the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds.

The money would help bridge the growing gap between rural and urban areas, Daschle said. He noted, for example, agriculture has been hit hard by shrinking exports, disasters and other outside forces.

"Nowhere is the link between global economic forces and local condition more pronounced than in our rural communities," he said. "Yet these communities are the least capable of weathering market downturns."

Ironically, Clay County was recently recognized for its population, sales-tax and job growth this decade. Clay County's success is part of a boom throughout the region.

However, Clay County meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) criteria for Daschle's program. In order to qualify for the funding, counties or Indian reservations must have:

* out-migration levels of at least 1 percent over a five-year period;

* per capita income levels below national averages;

* borders that are not adjacent to metropolitan areas;

* cities with populations less than 15,000.

According to USDA figures, Clay County recorded an out-migration rate of 3.48 percent for 1993-98. The county's average 1996 income was $15,749 per capita, which is below the national average. In addition, the county does not lie near metro areas. Vermillion, its largest city, has about 10,000 residents.

Last week's announcement came as a pleasant surprise to local officials.

Clay County Commissioner Todd Christensen said Daschele's legislation was news to him, and he was looking forward to more information.

The county had not applied for funds, Christensen said, and he was unsure why Clay County was chosen while neighboring counties were not on the list.

However, he said the funding would prove timely. The money could help the county prepare for the new Missouri River bridge linking Vermillion with Newcastle, NE, he said.

"It sounds like something real positive," he said. "That would be a great thing for the bridge and for economic-development opportunities."

The county could also take care of ongoing needs, he said. "We have some infrastructure we could develop, and the money could be very helpful."

Daschle said counties and tribes could use the grants in a variety of ways: industrial parks, land for development, affordable housing and economic strategies.

He noted that rural areas are not enjoying the national prosperity.

"In far too many of our rural communities, young people are being forced to move to urban areas to find employment, Main Street businesses are closing and farmers are struggling every day just to survive," he said.

"If we do not act, we are jeopardizing the future of rural America and are in danger of losing a valuable and important way of life."

Under the Senate bill, Clay County officials would determine the areas of local need, according to Daschle aide Stephanie Bluma.

"The county can determine a plan and submit it to HUD," she said. "The money would go to the county government, which would then determine uses for the money."

The program runs through 2006, when it would come up for reauthorization, she said.

"The counties remain eligible for funding in each year they qualify," she said. "If the statistics for income or out-migration change, (counties and tribes) may not remain eligible. Otherwise, they can apply again."

While the bill has just started its journey through Congress, Bluma said the legislation offers numerous possibilities for South Dakota's rural areas.

"We will push for its passage as soon as possible," she said. "It's a good bill for South Dakota, and we qualify 17 counties out of only 200 initially from across the nation."

Daschle said his bill would help rural areas regain stability.

This legislation will provide these areas with a steady funding source," he said. "They can use (the money) to coordinate local efforts and implement economic-recovery plans that will help return rural America to prosperity."

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