This week, I served as keynote speaker for a special conference in Great Falls, Montana, convened by Rural Dynamics Incorporated. The theme of the conference was “Mobilizing Rural Communities” and included participants representing a host of private, public, and non-profit participants. It has been less than three months since President Obama signed an Executive Order creating the first White House Rural Council. The Great Falls conference provided an opportunity to connect with many great folks from the Northern Plains Region, who are working on a daily basis on local projects and local partnerships to further the economic development and vitality of rural areas.
The group was very interested to learn more about the work of the White House Rural Council. We discussed President Obama’s priority of ensuring that rural areas have additional opportunities for economic investment and available working capital. We also discussed the need for innovation in the areas of high-speed Internet, renewable energy opportunities, as well as enhancements in education and health care. Topics involving natural resource-related business enterprises, public works, and forestry – all key focus areas for the White House Rural Council—were also discussed.
It was a pleasure to connect and exchange ideas with folks who are involved in diverse local initiatives, including building capacity for rural schools to utilize broadband, improving quality of life in Indian Country, and also helping agricultural producers handle the immense pressures of operating agricultural operations in uncertain economic times. I enjoyed meeting tribal leaders, regional philanthropists, and even a local popcorn entrepreneur known as the “Popcorn Colonel.” However, most gratifying was seeing the many AmeriCorps volunteers who are contributing time and resources to help build a stronger Northern Plains region, while also building their own future vocational capabilities.
Given the importance of the American Jobs Act, the jobs bill that the President sent to Congress this week, we discussed the fact that President Obama seeks to create job opportunities by further reducing the payroll tax, which would benefit more than 30,000 workers in Montana. The group also spent time discussing the fact that the President’s proposal would invest $50 billion in infrastructure improvement, meaning 2,800 jobs in Montana. I also highlighted the President’s proposal for $35 billion to help support teachers and first responders, and $25 billion for school improvements, which are so vitally important to rural areas, and would mean more than $160 million invested in Montana alone.
Perhaps more than any other aspect of the meeting, it was just exciting just to spend time connecting the opportunities and challenges that local folks have experienced, with the work that we are doing on the White House Rural Council. Bringing resources to bear in Rural America sometimes just comes down to overcoming basic physical boundaries – proximity to services, ensuring awareness to constituents that programs or services are available, or helping to build capacity of grant writers or reviewers. Going forward, tackling all of these challenges is essential to improving federal services to rural areas, as well as increasing the flow of philanthropic and private funding to vital rural projects. Both are key priorities for the President.
And as I return to the White House over thousands of miles with many new business cards in my pocket, new ideas to pursue (and even a few bags of popcorn in my suitcase), I know that for this Administration there truly is no such thing as “flyover country.”
Doug McKalip is Senior Policy Advisor for Rural Affairs, White House Domestic Policy Council.