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USDA Rural Partners Network works to connect communities to federal programs

USDA Rural Partners Network hosts a community forum at Nicolet College.
Katie Thoresen
USDA Rural Partners Network hosts a community forum at Nicolet College.

About seven months ago the USDA expanded its Rural Partners Network to Wisconsin.

It’s a group of five community networks across the state.

Locally it includes Forest County and the Northern Wisconsin Community which includes Ashland, Iron, and Price counties.

It’s meant to facilitate partnerships between local leaders and residents and different businesses, non-profits, and other services.

Dozens of those involved in the effort met at Nicolet College Tuesday.

Housing, childcare, broadband, infrastructure, and business development are just a few of the things top of mind for people.

Chris Schafer is the Executive Director of the Forest County Chamber of Commerce, Tourism, and Economic Development.

He and Associate Director Mary Balland applied last year for Forest County to be part of the USDA Rural Partners Network.

They attended a community forum for it Tuesday at Nicolet College.

“We’ve got so many other entities within this state, within rural communities that have all of our same problems and challenges. My biggest takeaway is that rather than us trying to win this all on our own we can actually use partners,” said Schafer. “To me, it’s just a matter of meeting people, building relationships, and continuing to find ways to win for forest county.”

Schafer says the county applied for multi-million dollar grants he’s waiting to hear about that would support broadband and road infrastructure.

“It’s certainly needed for our county,” said Schafer.

USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development Farah Ahmad says there’s a lot the federal government and rural leaders can learn from one another.

She acknowledges that in the past her office hasn’t always been the easiest to work with, but one of the major goals of the Rural Partnership Network is to change that.

“There’s a lot of federal resources out there right now that we’re really excited about through the American Rescue Plan and the Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act,” said Ahmad. “Those resources are for everyone but the Rural Partners Network is trying to make sure that those rural communities can access those federal resources and make sure that they’re lined up with their vision and lined up with the projects that they want to see get off the ground to improve quality of life and to build rural prosperity. The takeaway here is that we’re a partner.”

Ahmad says she’ll be taking what she learned from people back to D.C. in hopes of making funding and programs more accessible to rural communities.

“We can learn lessons from the rural communities here today saying, ‘This is a barrier in a federal program’ or ‘Hey I didn’t know about this. We really need to communicate that better and here are some channels that work for us.’ I think there is a lot that we can learn. That we should learn and that’s what we’re trying to do here today,” said Ahmad.

Schafer says it's promising to have people from Washington D.C. come to the Northwoods and hear what people in rural communities like his have to say.

"It shows that they actually care about what is going on in our local communities. So much of what goes on today is 'lip service'. You hear a good story or you hear something good, but they're here. They're talking to us. They're taking our ideas. They're responding to us," said Schafer.

You can learn more about the Rural Partners Network in Wisconsin here.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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