Lisa Stifler is a Research Associate with the Community & Economic Development Program.
Historically, rural communities throughout the country and this state have lagged behind urban areas when it comes to rural infrastructure, whether power, paved roads, water and sewer, phone lines, mobile phone service, or internet access. On the one hand, the lack of infrastructure can add to a rural community’s charm and appeal, particularly for visitors. At the same time, however, the lack of or inadequate infrastructure can negatively affect rural communities in many areas of life (health, education, business and economic development, etc.). A previous post briefly touched on some of the issues around broadband internet access in rural communities in NC, highlighting Wilson’s efforts with Greenlight, a cable, internet, and phone local service-provider. Many experts, practitioners, community leaders, and residents of rural communities argue that broadband access has the potential to bring economic opportunities to rural communities, not to mention provide opportunities for advancement in health care (through telemedicine) and education. Over the past year, the federal government has taken a bigger interest in rural broadband, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provided funding for several broadband initiatives that are aimed at bringing and expanding broadband access in rural and underserved areas. (See the FCC’s website on rural broadband opportunities for more information.) Broadband access has the potential to connect small, local businesses to new markets and provide distance education opportunities for rural residents who live too far from or are unable to attend classes in person.
A number of communities have taken on the issue of rural broadband and internet access, using a variety of strategies. The small town of Houston, MN, through its school system, brought technology and internet access to residents of the rural community by creating a virtual academy to reach its rural students. (Click here for a case study on the town from Will Lame’s Small Towns, Big Ideas book.) In a similar fashion, Greene County, NC, in partnership with Apple and other private and public entities, started providing all 6-12 grade students with laptops and installed an affordable countywide internet system. The county attributes that initiative with improving SAT scores and state end of grade test scores, increasing college applications, and helping new businesses start. (See here for a brief article on the project.) In western NC, Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), a nonprofit internet service provider, has been providing free and reduced-cost dial-up, web hosting, and wireless high speed internet access since 1996.
Beyond internet access, however, water and sewer infrastructure is still an issue for some rural NC communities and residents. Not only does inadequate or unsafe water and sewer create health and environmental problems, the lack of quality infrastructure is an impediment to economic development, as businesses, large and small, cannot locate, expand, or operate without adequate infrastructure. Further, as many rural areas have grown in population over the last decade or so, municipalities have found their current water and sewer systems inadequate for dealing with an increase in demand and use.
At the individual homeowner or business owner level, ShoreBank Enterprise Cascadia operates a Septic Loan Program in a 3-county area in the Hood Canal Region of Washington State. The program, which focuses on two rural areas in the state, offers low-cost loans for the repair or replacement of septic systems. The loans, which are offered regardless of income and with terms that vary based on household income, include the costs of design, permitting, construction, and installation of the new systems and also include the costs of five years of continued maintenance of the system. Since the program began in 2007, almost 200 systems have been replaced or repaired through the loan program, and a majority of loan recipients recently surveyed indicated they could not have repaired or replaced their systems without the loan because of income constraints, and many homeowners indicated they would have been forced to move if not for the loan. (Click here for a performance assessment of the loan program from early 2009.)
At the community level, NC Rural Communities Assistance Project (NC RCAP), partners with low-income, rural communities and neighborhoods to water, wastewater, and affordable housing needs. NC RCAP works with communities around organizing the community around the needs of the community and finding solutions to the water and wastewater problems that may exist and provides technical assistance in bringing affordable, safe, and environmentally sound water and wastewater treatment systems to the communities. For example, NC RCAP has worked with a number of communities in Moore County around unsafe and failing septic systems. As a result of needs assessments and surveys conducted by NC RCAP and the communities, the communities obtained an engineering report outlining the costs of connecting to local towns’ water and sewer systems, worked with town leaders and NC RCAP staff to apply for Community Development Block Grant funding to extend the services, and explored alternative wastewater treatment systems in addition to traditional systems. As a result of the partnership, two communities are now receiving or will soon be receiving water and/or sewer service from the county.
Finally, since the 1990s, the NC Rural Economic Development Center has administered state programs aimed at assisting local governments in planning and constructing water and sewer projects. The North Carolina Economic Infrastructure Program assists local government units in implementing water and sewer projects that create private sector jobs. The program funds up to $10,000 for each job created, up to one half of the infrastructure costs, and is capped at $1,000,000. The jobs created must be full-time jobs and must pay at least the minimum wage. Further, a local match of at least 5% of the project costs is required. In addition, the Rural Center administers two grant programs for local governments and qualified nonprofits. The Planning Grants Program provides financing for rural municipalities to engage in planning efforts around improving water and sewer infrastructure. The maximum amount of the grant is $40,000. The Supplemental Grants Program provides funding to local governments and eligible nonprofits to improve rural water and sewer systems, and the maximum grant amount is $500,000.