Q&A with Colleen Callahan

USDA Rural Development in Illinois

Colleen Callahan is the Illinois Director of USDA Rural Development and was a long-time agribusiness reporter for WMBD radio and TV. She and her husband live on a farm near Kickapoo, Illinois.

Describe how you came to lead the department and your day-to-day activities with USDA Rural Development.
I was nominated by Senator Dick Durbin and appointed by President Obama to assume the directorship of USDA Rural Development in Illinois. My day-to-day activities include management of the 12 offices and 123 employees located throughout Illinois, as well as the state office and staff headquartered in Champaign. My responsibilities include the oversight of our $3 billion loan portfolio with investments in housing, business and community development in rural Illinois.

What defines a “rural community?”
The definition varies depending on the authorizing statute passed by Congress. Some programs are limited to rural communities of 10,000 or under in population, while others can reach communities up to 50,000.
Water distribution and treatment is very expensive in rural areas, so we help areas and communities with 10,000 or fewer residents. Communities of 20,000 or under qualify for our community facilities and infrastructure programs. Business hubs that serve smaller communities are often located in larger towns and small cities. Consequently, many of our business programs can help locations up to 50,000 in size.

How would you describe the current state of rural America and central Illinois in particular? What are its greatest needs?
The needs of central Illinois and most of downstate Illinois are similar. We have an aging population and have to find ways to attract and retain young people. We need to support young people in acquiring business skills and the financing to purchase small-town businesses as aging owners retire. Access to good healthcare is critical to our rural communities. Broadband is paramount for businesses to locate in our rural areas and be competitive, to provide access to information for schools and libraries, to provide quick reference to medical records and medical specialists, and to improve training and education. Many small communities have aging infrastructure requiring repairs or replacement, like Wyoming’s water tower and pipeline. In addition, good housing is essential if we’re going keep a viable workforce in rural Illinois.

» TOP 10 Things To Know About USDA Rural Development

 10. Rural Development is similar to the SBA (Small Business Administration), but exclusively for rural communities.

 9. Rural Development is similar to the FHA (Federal Housing Authority), but exclusively for rural communities.

8. Rural Development can provide financial assistance for single and multi-family housing.

7. Rural Development can provide financial assistance for farm labor housing.

6. Rural Development can provide financial assistance for community facilities (healthcare, police, fire, rescue, child care, adult day care, libraries, telecommunications…just to name a few).

5. Rural Development can provide financial assistance for water and waste disposal.

4. Rural Development can provide financial assistance for business and industry (rural business enterprise grants, value-added producer grants, renewable energy…just to name a few).

3. Rural Development, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, can assist in the expansion in rural areas.

2. Rural Development has 12 offices throughout Illinois, with 125 employees.

And the #1 thing you should know about Rural Development…

1. Rural Development in Illinois invests $1.8 million each day to benefit its rural residents and communities, while spending only 1.5 cents in administrative costs per dollar delivered!

It might surprise some people that several of your department’s programs, such as housing or funding for libraries, are under the USDA banner. How do these programs relate to agriculture and the USDA core mission?
Rural America is home to about 50 million people and about ¾ of the geography of the U.S. is still rural in nature. While agriculture is still a significant driver in rural America, only 6.5 percent of the rural workforce is directly employed in farm production. In fact, the majority of farmers now have non-farm income as well, so programs benefiting rural communities are really important for agriculture. This means that USDA must support not only the farms, but also the communities that surround and support them. Farmers and their families rely on the communities around them for many of the services they need. Communities help keep agriculture a viable career.

 

Grain elevators, food processing plants, seed companies, fertilizer dealers and equipment dealers are businesses that farmers rely on, but they also need reasonable access to water, libraries, schools and community colleges, medical care, nursing and retirement homes, grocery stores, emergency services and housing for the people who provide those services…all things that Rural Development supports. Some of those services rely on tax support, and communities help even the burden for those services. They also provide opportunities for employment off-season and for family members. Overall, Rural Development supports quality of life in rural areas in order to ensure a vital agriculture industry. Since sales of Illinois' agricultural commodities generate more than $9 billion annually, supporting that industry through community development is vital to the economic success of Illinois.

What has been the impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) on your department?
To date, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has meant about $395 million in additional funding for rural Illinois from February 17, 2009 to its one-year-anniversary. That funding has meant 3,789 loans and 27 grants, including:

  • Community Facilities and Infrastructure: 18 water and sewer projects and 18 community facility projects funded, everything from libraries to county storage facilities, from fire stations to a new roof on a county fair building, from a building to serve people with disabilities to a dental clinic.
  • Business Development: Nine loan guarantees for rural businesses, including refinancing; purchase of a building, machinery and equipment; building renovations; and real estate.
  • Funding in the form of four grants to non-profits and a municipality, for a revolving loan program and a feasibility study related to processing soybeans; to Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies to help community and business leaders create employment and boost the local economy; and to Southern Illinois Stimulus Corp. for small business equipment.

Total ARRA impact on Illinois over 12 months: $395 million. The overwhelming portion of funding is for affordable loans. Using last fiscal year’s numbers, ARRA allowed us to more than double our financial impact in rural Illinois. ARRA funds are available until September 30, 2010. While the need for many Rural Development programs is high, we’ll have to see what Congress appropriates for programs in the next fiscal year, which starts October 1st. iBi

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