Guest Commentary: Helping our rural communities grow

As America recovers from the recession, President Obama and Secretary Vilsack understand that folks in our small towns and rural communities are helping lead the way.

But the fact is, people in rural America also face a number of unique challenges. Many still don't have access to modern broadband internet, and in too many cases our rural towns rely on aging infrastructure to provide vital utilities.

All of us in the Obama Administration share the president's sentiment in giving all Americans a fair shot, including those in rural America, where our values as a nation and our "can-do" spirit as a people are rooted.

On our watch, USDA has made record investments that strengthen the rural economy, strengthen rural communities, and maximize opportunity for folks who call rural America home.

For example, since 2009, USDA has invested in new and improved broadband service for nearly seven million rural Americans and more than 360,000 rural businesses – including 16,446 subscribers here in South Dakota.

When these broadband projects are announced, they spur businesses to invest in communities and help drive job growth. They also create additional jobs as they are being built, and even more jobs when the networks become operational and are available to rural communities and businesses.

Over the past three and a half years, USDA also contributed to the overall revitalization of rural American infrastructure. The Obama Administration invested in more than 6,250 community facilities – such as libraries, clinics, police and fire stations – that serve nearly 29 million rural Americans.

Through distance learning and telemedicine programs in more than 5,700 schools and medical facilities, the Administration has improved the availability of health care and educational opportunity for rural families.

Under President Obama, USDA has helped modernize rural electric systems for more than 25 million Americans with funding for more than 90,000 miles of new or upgraded electric line. And we've invested in more than 5,500 water and waste water treatment projects, to help safeguard the health of 20 million rural residents.

These investments are impacting folks right here in South Dakota.

For example, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Telephone Authority in Eagle Butte is bringing broadband to homes and businesses in their service area through the completion of a total fiber to the premises (FTTP) build out through the Broadband Infrastructure Program.

Spearfish Meadows Homeowners Association in Spearfish utilized the Water and Waste Program to make upgrades to the entire water distribution system and installed new water mains that will enhance services to the existing and future customers.

Avera Health in Sioux Falls is expanding their services through the Distance Learning and Telemedicine program.

Funds were used to expand their services to tele-health specialty consultations, tele-radiology, e-ICU, e-pharmacy and e-emergency care to ten small rural clinics in three states which include counties in South Dakota: Brookings, Charles Mix, Hand, Kingsbury, Yankton and Moody; North Dakota: McIntosh; and Iowa: Dickinson, Osceola, and Sioux.

These stories are playing out across the country – so while we all recognize America is in a time that requires fiscal belt-tightening, we also know that smart, targeted investments are needed to give rural businesses and communities a competitive advantage in the global market.

President Obama and Secretary Vilsack know how important rural America is to our strength as a nation. And through these important investments, USDA is committed to ensuring that hard-working folks in our small towns, those who are creating so much for our country, don't get left behind.

Elsie M. Meeks is the State Director for the USDA Rural Development in South Dakota. She has more than 25 years of experience in economic development in Indian Country and at local, state and national levels. USDA Rural Development's mission is "To increase economic opportunity and improve the quality of life for all Americans." There are eight office locations throughout the state of South Dakota. Visit our website at: www.rurdev.usda.gov/sd.

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