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Rural Jobs Challenge Awards Encourage Innovative Partnerships

The grants, which were awarded in August, are part of a national competition aimed at encouraging job creation and economic growth in rural communities across the country.

Beth Mattson-Teig (Fall 2012)
Thirteen winners in the Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge will split nearly $9 million in grant money to help kick-start or expand economic development programs in their communities. The grants, which were awarded in August, are part of a national competition aimed at encouraging job creation and economic growth in rural communities across the country. "Rural America is a crucial focus, and we really wanted to make sure that we are bringing this new innovative approach and coordination of federal resources and the competition-style challenge to the needs of rural economic development," says Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Matt Erskine.

Grants ranging from nearly $200,000 to slightly more than $1 million were awarded to economic development partnerships and industry clusters in 12 states: Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, which received two. The winning projects will provide assistance to entrepreneurs and businesses across a wide variety of industries, including advanced manufacturing, agribusiness, energy, technology, and tourism.

The program provides critical funding to rural areas such as Allendale County, S.C., which currently ranks as one of the poorest counties in the country. The Southern Carolina Alliance (SCA), which serves six rural counties including Allendale, received a $650,000 grant to help fund its work force and industries program. The centerpiece of that initiative is a new Advanced Nuclear and Manufacturing Skills Academy. The academy, which will open next June, will train nuclear welders, advanced structural welders, pipe fitters, and NQA-1 certified welding inspectors.

"There are several reasons why we need that academy. One is that we're trying to provide workers that help us to attract industries related to automotive and aerospace," says Kay Maxwell, vice president of the SCA. The region is surrounded by aerospace and automotive clusters, which have expressed a need for highly skilled, certified welders.

The Rural Jobs Challenge builds on the Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge that was launched by the Obama Administration last year. A key aspect of this competition model is that winners have to not only explain how they plan to create jobs, but also how they are going to leverage investment from the private sector over the medium to long-term. "We are looking for a sustainable approach, not just a flash in the pan," says Erskine.

Louisiana Tech University is another Rural Jobs Challenge winner, which received a $964,134 grant to support its efforts for promoting growth in the I-20 corridor of Louisiana and Arkansas. The university is partnering with Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development in Little Rock, Ark. The grant money will be used to expand the university's New Venture Challenge, which is a business plan competition that is currently held for students on campus. "This funding will allow us to push that program throughout the region to new ventures, existing ventures that have identified an expansion opportunity, and just general members of the population rather than just students," says Kathy Wyatt, director of the Technology Business Development Center at Louisiana Tech.

Based on recipient estimates, the 13 winning projects will initially create or retain 2,990 jobs and leverage $35.5 million in private investment. Over the long term, it is estimated that they will create or retain 6,460 jobs and leverage $69.6 million in private investment.
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