Last week, USDA Under Secretary Dallas Tonsager made a brief, but impactful visit to Oregon joining USDA Rural Development State Director Vicki Walker to announce program support and celebrate milestones in rural economic development with local communities.
At a press conference in Boardman, Oregon, on Thursday Under Secretary Tonsager explained how a conditional commitment in the amount of $232.5 million to ZeaChem Boardman Biorefinery, LLC (ZBB) through the Biorefinery Assistance Program will create family-wage jobs and help meet the nation’s renewable energy goals.
“This project is a triple win. It’s good for the environment. It’s good for the economy. And it’s a great example of how federal agencies can leverage funds to get the most bang for the taxpayer buck,” Tonsager said. The loan guarantee will allow ZBB to construct a commercial-scale, 25 million gallon per year biorefinery that will convert poplars and agricultural residues into cellulosic ethanol. Projected to be operational by late 2014, the biorefinery is expected to create 65 jobs while supporting another 38 jobs with the parent company and more than 100 construction jobs.
At another stop in Oregon City, Tonsager joined Congressman Kurt Schrader for a roundtable discussion and award announcements for the Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program. A total of 23 Oregon recipients were selected to receive business development assistance.
Benjamin Deumling from Zena Forest, LLC was among the awardees. “My first two phone calls will be to the two employees I had to lay off last year, so I can tell them they have a job!” he said. According to Duemling, a lack of capital had prevented Zena Forest from meeting customer demand for oak flooring made from trees grown and milled on the family operation. The VAPG will allow them to move forward, sustaining and reinstating local jobs.
The following day, Tonsager visited Central Oregon, where he joined the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs for a traditional celebration and ribbon cutting for their first-ever broadband project on the reservation.
“You have the full support of the Obama Administration in your efforts to improve economic opportunities and quality of life here on the reservation,” Tonsager said in his keynote address.
With $5.4 million in USDA Recovery Act broadband funding, Warm Springs Telecommunications Company has constructed a state-of-the-art fiber and fixed wireless network that will eventually serve everyone on the 644,000-acre reservation with telephone and broadband. Until now, only about one-third of those living on the reservation had access to phone or Internet service.
Before heading back to the East Coast, the Under Secretary stopped in nearby Madras, Oregon, to join Mayor Melanie Widmer, city councilors, public employees and emergency service personnel to break ground on a combination city hall-police station funded with a $2.2 million Rural Development Community Facilities loan.
Plans include an outdoor public space and veteran’s memorial featuring an existing statue of Madras native Pfc. Thomas Tucker of Madras who was killed in Iraq in 2006.
The Under Secretary was able to cover a lot of ground (about 500 miles!) and meet with numerous program participants during his short trip to the Beaver State. Still, the visit illustrates just a fraction of the community and economic development successes USDA Rural Development and our rural partners have achieved in Oregon.
“Our mission covers broadband, biofuels, electricity, water and sewer systems, homes. We’ve done $1.7 billion worth of business in Oregon over the last 3 years,” Tonsager commented. “So, I think we’ve made a significant contribution to the rural economy.”