(OpEd By Hilda Legg, State Director for Kentucky Rural Development)
What an exciting and rewarding time I’ve had while serving as the Kentucky state director of USDA’s Rural Development!
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that just over three years ago I took the helm, but it’s definitely been gratifying to lead the Kentucky Rural Development team in delivering some of the best production numbers in recent history. To date, we’ve helped bring over $3.2 billion in federal money back to Kentucky during the Trump administration.
That’s no small feat, especially when you take into account our staffing levels; we went from right around 93 people at the end of 2017 to our current level of 68. Losing 25 people while processing record numbers of applications is impressive! Part of what made us successful was the shift away from a geographic model of program delivery to a more specialized model. Instead of staff members in a given location working every program, we assigned each staff member to only one program area. This shift streamlined how we did business and greatly improved consistency and customer service.
One of the issues I tackled early on was a basic one – one that is critically important – a general lack of understanding about what Rural Development does and can do for rural Kentuckyians and their communities. Our business programs director told me on day one that people just don’t know what we have to offer. Maybe at that time Kentucky businesses didn’t know about all of the programs we offered, but when fiscal year 2020 came to an end, our team led the nation in delivering crucial business relief funding ($37.5 million to be exact) made possible by the passage of the CARES Act earlier in the year. That would not have been possible without customer awareness, and as a member of the Kentucky Institute for Rural Journalism, I certainly appreciate all of the media outlets across the commonwealth who have helped inform rural Kentucky about opportunities available through the federal government.
Speaking of our business programs, a big highlight from 2020 was our investment in AppHarvest’s operation in Morehead. This is probably the single most exciting business project from my tenure here, and I really can’t wait to see the enormous positive impact they’ll have on the Appalachian region. One aspect of AppHarvest that I absolutely love is their drive to pass on their knowledge through high school programs. Teaching the youth of today about sustainable high-tech agriculture is a win for not only the region but the country as well.
Anyone who knows me knows I am a champion for expanding last-mile broadband, and if ever there was a silver lining in the dark cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was highlighting all that broadband can enable us to do and how critically important it is that every family in rural Kentucky has access to true broadband. With solid high-speed connections, patients can connect with doctors from the comfort and safety of their own home. Those same connections enable students to participate in online classes and learn to the fullest extent possible, given these unprecedented times. Just last fiscal year alone, we invested $41.3 million in broadband expansion projects to help connect thousands of homes and businesses.
The COVID-19 cloud’s silver lining also highlighted the need in many hospitals and health care facilities across the commonwealth to expand their telemedicine capabilities. Our Distance Learning & Telemedicine Grant Program has been popular for years, but when the CARES Act provided a special pot of funding specifically for this program, we saw a huge influx in interest and applications. We funded seven projects through that program early in fiscal year 2020 and are hopeful we will fund even more through the CARES Act funding. Nothing has done as good a job at highlighting the need for our Distance Learning & Telemedicine Grant Program like the COVID-19 pandemic.
I would definitely have preferred to continue serving another four years, but looking back, I see a lot of positive impact our team has had on rural Kentucky. Since President Trump took office, we’ve helped almost 19,000 families turn a house into a home, we’ve helped countless communities improve their drinking and waste water systems, and we’ve helped save thousands of well-paying jobs.
Rural Kentucky is where I was born and raised, and rural Kentucky is where my heart will always be!