Business leaders from across the commonwealth converged at McKechnie Vehicle Components Wednesday afternoon, Oct. 19, for a roundtable discussion with USDA Rural Development Under Secretary Dallas Tonsager to discuss ways to improve rural economic conditions and create jobs.
“It’s just to listen to people,” Tonsager said. “My agency is called rural development, and our mission is to try to do economic development in rural America.”
Tonsager said the roundtables, which are ocurring throughout the nation, are a mandate from President Barack Obama.
“President Obama created the White House Rural Council to build on the administration’s robust economic strategy for rural America and make sure that continued federal investments in rural communities create maximum benefit for rural Americans,” Tonsager said. “Rural development is working toward this goal by building and modernizing critical infrastructure, providing broadband to rural communities, expanding educational opportunities and promoting the production of renewable energy.”
The roundtable discussions allowed government leaders the unique opportunity to hear directly from business leaders around the country about their ideas on how to grow the economy.
“What happens in these roundtables is I will listen and I¿will take careful notes, and next week, I’ll get a summary of those notes and forward them to the White House, where they will have a leader in the council, and they, in turn, summarize the notes and speak to the president and talk about priorities they can identify,” Tonsager said.
In all, Tonsager has conducted five roundtables with two more remaining, and a couple key concerns have jumped out.
“A lot of people are focused on regulation,” he said. “That seems to very much be a concern of theirs — about regulatory restrictions, especially as it relates when they’re trying to do business with us or other federal agencies.”
Tonsager said businesses are concerned about not being able to secure loans for capital projects.
“They’re having difficultly getting credit at times for getting capital investment projects to make them run,” Tonsager said. “There seems to be a reluctance at this time by lenders to lend.”
While regulatory and credit issues have dominated the talks, Tonsager said there have been a few oddities.
“I was in a state where they absolutely could not find any people to employ,” he said. “There was a new company starting up, and they needed 200 employees, and they were having a hard time finding people with the skill sets that could do the job for them. That was intriguing with the amount of unemployment that we’ve had; it’s been hard in some cases to find the right mix of people to get employed.”
How does Kentucky compare
Agribusiness is a positive in Kentucky compared with other states, Tonsager said.
“My impressions so far is it’s a little stronger; agriculture is doing pretty well,” he said. “We had $140 billion in exports this year. It gives us a $40 billion trade surplus, and prices are quite strong in agricultural markets at this time. I’m just learning, but I’d say that Kentucky might be a little stronger in the rural sense than some areas have been.”
Overall, Tonsager said he’s gotten the sense of optimism during the roundtables.
“Of course, we’ve been in a recession; we’re coming out of it slowly, and there’s a lot to be done,” he said. “In Denver (during a roundtable), some of the people were concerned about things, (and) we took a poll and we asked if they were optimistic, and two-thirds of them were. And we asked if any of them were going to hire new people, and two-thirds of them were.”
The key in rural America, Tonsager said, is getting groups committed to economic development.
“If we can get more and more rural-based organizations to take up the efforts of business development, I think that we can really start moving the economy again,” he said.
Thomas G. Fern, Kentucky state director for rural development, agreed.
“There is tremendous economic potential in rural America, and rural development has programs available to help rural businesses succeed, expand and create jobs,” Fern said. “Investments in rural communities help drive job creation and lay the foundation for rural communities that are self-sustaining and thriving economically.”