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Development rep predicts more USDA money; Roper says Administration is likely to focus on growth in rural America

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“This Administration is going to put a lot of money into a very specific area, specifically rural America,” says Mark Roper of the New Mexico Economic Development Department. He spoke at a Friday board meeting of the Southeastern New Mexico Economic Development District and Council of Governments. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is likely to funnel significantly more money to rural areas this fiscal year, according to a state economic development manager.

“I had a phone conversation with the USDA a little over a week ago,” said Mark Roper. “They feel that it is the rural people who elected this Administration, and they want to get the money out to the rural people.”

Roper is the community, business and rural development leader for the New Mexico Economic Development Department. He previously represented the southeastern part of the state as its regional economic development representative.

Speaking to county and municipal leaders associated with the Southeastern New Mexico Economic Development District / Council of Governments at its Friday morning board meeting on the campus of Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, Roper said that he thinks USDA representatives will be talking with area government and business leaders after the 30-day legislative session starting Tuesday to find out what shovel-ready projects can be funded.

“This Administration is going to put a lot of money into a very specific area, specifically rural America, and we need to have projects ready,” Roper said.

Roper also talked about other funding programs available to help grow businesses in New Mexico, which he characterized as rural throughout, especially in southeastern New Mexico, due to issues related either to housing, transportation or infrastructure.

Roper first explained that the state department focuses primarily on BRE, business retention and expansion.

“The headlines of economic development is a new company in town, and you go out and cut the ribbon and the mayor and all the legislators are there to pat each other on the back. That makes headlines,” he said. “The truth of the matter of is that 70 percent of all economic development nationally, and that is even more true in New Mexico, comes from growth, comes from within. That is the cornerstone of what economic development is. Recruitment is sexy, but the real nuts and bolts of economic development is retention and expansion.”

Two major funding programs in the state include the Jobs Training Incentive Program and the Local Economic Development Act.

All states have some type of job training program, he said, but New Mexico differs from 48 others in that it will reimburse in cash 50 percent to 75 percent of the training costs for new employees, with no minimum or maximum limit on the number of new jobs that can be covered by the program.

Most states, he said, only pay for curriculum or trainers, but New Mexico is one of two that gives cash back for training dollars.

According to the Economic Development Department website, more than 46,000 jobs and 1,500 businesses have been aided by the program since its creation in 1972.

Roper also said that the program can cover skilled workers who are new to the area.

“Even if this person has the degree, the certificate or the aptitude for that job, they are not going to be 100 percent proficient when they walk into the door,” he said.

The other program that he characterized as very successful is the Local Economic Development Act, which funds land, buildings or infrastructure projects benefiting businesses. The project also must provide a public benefit either through new job creation, higher wages or improved infrastructure.

Originally the program was to be funded by cities and counties, but the legislature decided about 10 years ago to provide state money in recognition that most cities and counties in New Mexico do not have the funding for large projects. For the past four years, Roper said, the state had maintained $50 million for the LEDA fund, replenishing money as it is expended.

Since 2011, Roper said, there have been about 75 LEDA projects in 29 cities and counties. About 6,000 were created, and the ratio of private investment to public funding has been 38 to 1. The state legislature requirement for the program this fiscal year is 12 to 1 private to public funding, he added.

“We have done extremely well,” he said.

Although he acknowledged that there have been some failures in which the businesses either closed or moved out of the state, he said that the state has been able to recoup its investment in each instance since it began requiring collateral on its investment and has not lost money as a result.

Roper also talked about FUNDIT, an initiative benefiting public entities.

He described it as an ad hoc gathering of state and federal funding agencies that now meets quarterly to review proposed public projects and determine which agencies and funding programs might be available to provide money.

Eligible projects include infrastructure projects, housing projects, downtown redevelopment or community or business development projects.

City and county leaders need to have a sponsor before presenting their project to the group, he said. Sponsors can include a Council of Government body or a state regional economic development representative.

The next FUNDIT meeting is March 6 in Albuquerque, with project proposals due by Feb. 16.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.