USDA rural development initiative aimed at Western and Interior Alaska


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Note: This story was edited to reflect that Strikeforce expansion also applies to Interior Alaska, and that Strikeforce spent $65 million in Southeast Alaska during the past three years.

The federal government has launched a new initiative to improve rural Alaska infrastructure and address other issues.

In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development arm announced the expansion of the StrikeForce program from Southeast to Western and Interior Alaska, as well as three telecommunications grants to Alaska entities.

USDA Alaska Farm Service Agency State Executive Director Danny Consenstein said StrikeForce draws on several USDA entities working together, including the Forest Service, Rural Development and Farm Service. For the 2013 fiscal year, about $11 million was spent on StrikeForce work in Southeast Alaska.

Now, Western and Interior Alaska will also benefit from the coordinated efforts, which are intended to both focus USDA efforts and leverage community resources with other funding to make those efforts more efficient in targeting improvements in areas with high poverty rates.

USDA-RD officials from Outside including StrikeForce National Coordinator Max Finburg visited the state in January to see the realities of life and business in Alaska.

“We are interested in creating opportunities,” Finburg said after the visit to Western Alaska.

In Kwethluk, on the Kuskokwim River east of Bethel, the group saw a lack of adequate facilities, including sanitation and housing, Finburg said.

“We’re doing everything we can to address those challenges in ways that are unique to Alaska,” Finburg said.

The group also visited Bethel and Quinhagak, both on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta where the new StrikeForce initiative is focused, and went to Southeast Alaska, where StrikeForce originally launched in Alaska.

The department also announced three telecommunications grants that will support the region.

USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Rural Development Patrice Kunesh said during a Jan. 29 press conference that the department awarded a telecommunications grant of $718,000 to Bethel Broadcasting Corp. to enable the station to go digital.

That was awarded as part of a competitive grant process, with entities that could use the funding quickly at the top of the list for receiving it.

Kunesh said that while visiting the region, the USDA group heard that the station is very cultural, with Yup’ik programming, and an institution in the area. Digital transmission will help it continue its work.

The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Chugachmiut are also slated to receive $114,000 and $180,000, respectively, for telemedicine and other telehealth work.

In Western Alaska, the StrikeForce initiative will also work on collaborations with Alaska businesses and nonprofits, such as the Native corporations and the Rasmuson Foundation.

The exact funding availability will depend on the details of the 2014 budget, but the department expected to announce funding availability in the near future.

For the last three years the USDA’s rural development arm has spent $65 million in Southeast Alaska.

The Western and Interior Alaska initiative will likely have similarities to the department’s work in Southeast.

Constenstein said StrikeForce looked at reducing the barriers for businesses, such as those in the tourism industry, in addition to other endeavors in Southeast.

USDA Rural Development Area Director Keith Perkins wrote in an email that the projects funded through StrikeForce in Southeast cover all areas of the Rural Development mission, including business programs, community programs and housing.

Some of the projects included a water/sewer extension in Metlakatla, on which the USDA partnered with the Metlakatla Housing Authority. USDA provided an $823,388 through the Water and Environmental Program, which is administered by the USDA-RD's Rural Utilities Service. That leveraged about $1 million from other entities, Perkins wrote.

In Ketchikan, Community Connections, Inc. received a $2.9 million direct loan through the Community Facilities program, which the entity used to leverage other funds.

Perkins said that the funds may have been spent on those projects even without the initiative, as all were considered competitive enough to merit funding.

“StrikeForce provides a more focused effort to get the USDA agencies to work closely toward helping the economy of the region,” Perkins said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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