PLATTSBURGH — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) visited the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing at Clinton Community College Monday to announce her new legislation, the Rebuild Rural America Act.
"The success of our state, and our country, relies on the talent, innovation and growth of rural communities," she told a gathering of elected officials, CCC representatives, community members and media.
"This bill would level the playing field for rural communities by overhauling our current federal funding models."
Gillibrand plans to introduce the act in Congress this week, and Rep. Antonio Delgado (D-Rhinebeck) will introduce the House version.
CCC President Ray DiPasquale welcomed the senator on her first visit to the IAM.
"Clinton Community College fully endorses your ideas, fully endorses what you’re about to promote, and most importantly what it would do in changing the economy in this area."
North Country Chamber of Commerce President/CEO Garry Douglas said Gillibrand has understood since she came to Congress that "most federal development programs were very tilted toward metro areas.
"And, while conceptually they were open to areas like ours, you could never effectively compete."
IAM AN EXAMPLE
The IAM is a perfect example of the kind of project Gillibrand believes the federal government should help to fund.
Its degree and workforce training programs help to expand Clinton County and the North Country's capacity to prepare workers for a variety of industries, "particularly aerospace, transportation and manufacturing, things where we really excel in and lead."
The resulting increased workforce capacity helps to expand local employment, serve existing businesses and attract new ones to the area, she said.
"This all drives economic growth for the region."
Challenges that rural communities face are complex and demand comprehensive solutions, but the federal government makes it complicated to access necessary resources, Gillibrand said.
"Federal grants are often too narrow and inflexible to support the development needs of rural communities."
If these communities are able to find the right grant programs to apply for, applications are time-intensive and require hard-to-find data, Gillibrand said.
"Rural communities often lack staff, expertise, community development organizations that are critically necessary to pursue these funding opportunities."
Communities can't afford lobbyists or grant writers, and shouldn't have to, the senator continued.
In overhauling current federal funding models, the Rebuild Rural America Act would establish a $50 billion Rural Future Partnership Fund, which would guarantee rural communities' access to multi-year, flexible block grants.
That flexibility would allow communities to direct funds to a wide range of areas, including disaster resiliency, entrepreneurship, main street revitalization, child care, health care or addiction treatment.
Plattsburgh may want to expand or replicate the IAM's work, upgrade water and wastewater infrastructure, or invest in rural broadband, Gillibrand suggested.
"The point is, you would get to decide how to direct this money because that’s the way it should be."
Other provisions of the Rebuild Rural America Act would provide new staff to each state's United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development offices, establish a state-by-state Rural Innovation and Partnership Administration to oversee the program and require interested regions to form a Regional Rural Partnership Council, according to a press release.
"It would also establish a Rural Future Corps to provide opportunities to public servants and young professionals to move to or stay in rural communities," the idea being to resolve shortages in professions like the medical field and expand such services as child care, nutrition assistance and job training, Gillibrand said.
"The national investment in rural areas and small towns needs to match contributions that the communities actually make to our state and country."
Funding for the provisions of the Rebuild Rural America Act would come in one of two ways, Gillibrand said.
Should a hoped-for bipartisan infrastructure bill come about — the senator noted President Donald Trump's frequent statements that he wants to invest $1 billion in that sector — a $50 billion piece would be dedicated solely to rural America.
That would be combined with other infrastructure bills the senator has written to make for a comprehensive approach.
"This is about values, and I think you can always find the right federal money if you’re investing in the right thing to improve the economy in all states."
Gillibrand praised the regional approach Douglas, the Chamber of Commerce and the North Country Regional Economic Development Council bring to their meetings with her.
"We’re calling for regional rural partnership councils made up of a cross-section of local leaders, including elected officials and economic development organizations, cooperatives, higher ed and foundations.
"That’s what we’ve been doing in the North Country for my entire 12 years in public service so, frankly, the idea came from here."
State Assemblyman D. Billy Jones (D-Plattsburgh) thanked Gillibrand for introducing the act, which he said would put resources and funding back in the hands of local leaders and communities.
"I can’t see anybody — anybody — not wanting to support this."
Clinton County Legislature Chairman Harry McManus (D-Area 1) thanked Gillibrand for her part in advocating for $1.5 million in U.S. Economic Development Administration Public Works Program funding to redevelop the former County Airport.
"What we’re going to have out there is a technology center and we’re going to have good-paying jobs, we’re going to have a situation where Clinton County is going to be further on the map."
Plattsburgh Town Supervisor Michael Cashman called CCC a gem of the North Country which would be further utilized at that tech center.
"If it wasn’t because of your championship and introducing bills like this," he told the senator, "we wouldn’t be where we are today, so thank you very much."
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