HANCOCK - The state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program came to the Copper Country Tuesday and Wednesday to look at current and future projects.
Tuesday and Wednesday, James Turner visited a variety of locations, including GS Engineering, GE Aviation, L'Anse Manufacturing, REL and the Superior Suppliers Network. Wednesday night, he attended a forum on biomass opportunities for landowners in Ontonagon County.
"I'm just up here to look and listen, really, and look for opportunities where we can invest in small businesses and in rural communities to continue our mission to help these communities become prosperous, repopulated places," he said.
Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette
From left, Phil Knapp, cost estimation quality manager for L’Anse Manufacturing shows James Turner, state director for U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program, and Phil Musser, executive director of the Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance, around the site during Turner’s visit to the Copper Country Tuesday.
Biomass could help bring jobs to the area, he said, because its distribution footprint must be kept within 50 miles to be profitable.
"There's going to be an opportunity for more than one business to be in aggregation and distribution business," he said. "And somebody's going to have to take care of all that ash, too."
Kim Stoker, executive director of the Western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region, said he is pursuing a cooperative agreement with Michigan Technological University business lecturer Roger Woods and Tech's School of Business. Right now, he said, WUPPDR is putting out requests for proposals for a pellet business plan.
"If you can grow something, and you can pelletize it and they can sell it, they proved in Europe it can work, so let's follow that example," he said.
While the rural development program does provide some grant money, it is primarily a lending institution, Turner said. The three basic areas are housing, community projects and small business projects.
The biggest area in housing is the single family loan guarantee program, where the rural development program provides guarantees to lenders making loans for housing for moderate or low-income families. There is also a direct loan program for low-income families, in which families get training on how to handle credit and a mortgage.
Studies have shown home ownership has a number of ancillary benefits, Turner said, including higher grades for children, better nutrition and lower rates of domestic violence.
"All this comes from owning a home and having that sense of permanency," he said.
Rural development program money also finances things such as sewer systems, fire trucks and rescue vehicles, and broadband. The closest such program is in Chatham, where a couple of hundred miles of fiberoptic cables have been installed.
In the business loan guarantee program, Turner said, loans are brought to the rural development program by banks. Any federally insured bank can come to the program with a proposal for a loan, Turner said. About $24 million has been given out in loan guarantees this year.
Another grant can be used to help small businesses fund feasibility studies, or for "economic gardening," where a consultant works hands-on with a small business to develop a market plan and teach business owners how to work in a global marketplace. One of the beneficiaries of the fund is the Superior Suppliers Network in Baraga County, Stoker said.
Turner said President Barack Obama has pushed strongly for engagement with rural communities.
"Rural communities are where our values reside," he said.