Advocacy group: Farm Bill helps fund Northland hospitals and moreAs Congress continues to hash out the next five years of funding for the comprehensive program, Minnesota 2020 published a report on Monday and launched a statewide campaign in Cloquet to build awareness of what’s at stake.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
More is riding on the outlook for the federal farm bill than many Northland residents may realize.
As Congress continues to hash out the next five years of funding for the comprehensive program, Minnesota 2020 published a report on Monday and launched a statewide campaign in Cloquet to build awareness of what’s at stake.
Funding for food stamps, for university research and for rural development programs are all on the line, said Lee Egerstom, a development fellow for Minnesota 2020, a group that describes itself as “a nonpartisan, progressive think tank.”
Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet hosted a press conference with Egerstrom on Monday morning.
Hospital CEO Rick Breuer said that were it not for rural development assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, it’s doubtful Community Memorial would have been able to grow as it has in recent years.
In 2004, the USDA provided $10 million in loan guarantees for a $15 million expansion of the Cloquet hospital. Without that support, the project would likely have never got off the ground, Breuer said.
A subsequent $28 million expansion is now being completed, and Breuer said it would have been a decidedly smaller project if not for the $15 million Community Memorial was able to borrow directly through the USDA and another $9 million in federal loan guarantees it provided to secure additional funds from traditional private-sector lenders.
Breuer predicts the investments the USDA has supported will have wide-reaching impact on Cloquet.
“Quality health care and education are the cornerstones of a strong local economy,” he said. “When you have good health care and educational institutions, it attracts employers and employees to your community. They become an economic engine.”
That’s not to mention the 450 people Community Memorial employs itself.
The USDA Rural Development also provided about $38 million in support for Mercy Hospital’s recent expansion in Moose Lake and $8.6 million to help Northern Pines Medical Center in Aurora grow, according to Egerstrom.
“None of these communities had the kind of tax base to take on those projects by themselves,” he said.
The USDA has made many other major rural development investments in the Northland. Since fiscal year 2009, the agency has helped fund the following work in Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Lake and St. Louis counties:
r About $70 million to help people buy, construct and rehabilitate homes.
r Approximately $1.3 million for the construction of new multi-family housing.
r About $93 million to improve water distribution and treatment systems, for sewage collection and treatment, to purchase rescue equipment, for municipal buildings and for other critical infrastructure in rural communities.
“Especially in some of our smaller communities, this infrastructure can be expensive and difficult to fund,” said Barbara Hayden, St. Louis County’s planning and development director. “To have outside resources is important, because it’s tough to fund projects through increased rates or tax levies, particularly in areas with aging housing bases and aging populations.”
Egerstrom said a version of the Farm Bill approved by the U.S. Senate would make relatively modest adjustments in funding for rural development projects. But the House continues to consider more profound cuts.
“The differences are so profound that you wouldn’t know they were talking about a farm bill for the same country,” he said.
A study from Minnesota 2020 said Minnesota receives between $630 million and $760 million per year in grants, loans and loan guarantees from the USDA’s rural development programs.
Rural development resources have been shrinking in recent years, however, with state funds reduced by 32 percent from fiscal year 2003 to 2013. Adjusting for inflation, the USDA funds have been cut in half since 2003, according to the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.