Very soon end-of-year festivities will be put aside in favor of new year resolutions. Before we reach the rush of a new year, I would like to reflect on the progress over the previous one.

Under the leadership of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett, Rural Development has made major strides in its work to create economic opportunity and improve the quality of life in rural America.

As State Director for USDA Rural Development in Utah, I have the privilege of celebrating our rural communities every day.

Over 2018, Rural Development focused on infrastructure, partnerships, and innovation to help increase rural prosperity. Rural Development invested more than $505 million in Utah in the areas of broadband, business, health care, emergency services, housing and infrastructure.

Our business and cooperative program area invested nearly $15 million through a variety of programs to help rural communities create jobs and enjoy healthy local economies.

Visitors to our great state will appreciate the $14 million invested in new hotels and private campgrounds. These renovated and newly-built properties will keep visitors comfortable as they recreate at and travel in between our great national parks or other points of interest.

The Rural Energy for America Program had a big year in Utah. We supported 12 small businesses and ag producers to make renewable energy and energy efficiency improvement projects including the installation of solar energy systems and equipment upgrades.

We know housing affordability in Utah is a top concern among urban and rural families alike. Amid this challenge, we’re happy to report 1,879 families and individuals became homeowners using our single-family housing programs. These programs are designed to provide an affordable home buying experience. More than $39 million in direct home loans and more than $354 million in guaranteed mortgages were made this past year, which helps to alleviate some of the housing shortages in our rural communities.

Rural Development’s Community Facilities Program (CF) invested heavily in rural communities, with $64.5 million going to help provide essential rural community facilities and services including public safety and health care projects. Topping the list was the expansion of Uintah Basin Medical Center in Vernal and Roosevelt. The health care organization will build a new surgical center and construct additional improvements to better serve patients in the Basin.

The CF program this year has placed a major emphasis in fighting the opioid epidemic in rural Utah. As Co-Chair of Utah’s Rural Opioid Work Group, I am proud that USDA has funded projects that are making a difference: Four Corners Community Behavioral Health will be able to purchase new vehicles to transport clients to and from critical services and will secure transitional housing to aid in recovery. In addition, East Carbon City and Sevier County will each purchase new ambulances equipped to respond to emergencies specific to the opioid epidemic.

Our Water and Environmental Programs provided more than $15 million in support of water and wastewater infrastructure. Sewer and water systems will be built out and improved, including source springs and wells that have been shuttered due to extensive drought periods. Some of the water systems we’re looking to recover are long overdue for upgrades and require extensive work to bring them up to safety standards. We’re pleased we can play a part in such important work.

The USDA has made good on its promise to place an emphasis on connecting our rural communities. This past year we provided $3.3 million to boost broadband’s reach in the southeast portion of the state, an important partner with the state’s Rural On-Line Initiative and job creation. Our Distance Learning and Telemedicine program has also been well-utilized, with more than $1 million awarded to connect doctors with patients and teachers with students. In this effort we’re pleased to partner with Utah State University, the San Juan County School District, and Utah Navajo Health Systems.

The USDA would not be able to make such investments in Utah if not for the hard work and dedication of truly professional staff. I commend the incredible work Rural Development’s staff members did this year to make these investments possible.

Looking ahead to 2019, Rural Development is determined to remove regulatory barriers and provide the resources rural America needs to build sustainable, prosperous communities.

Customer service will also remain a top priority as USDA is dedicated to serving our rural customers in the most effective way possible.

A new e-Connectivity infrastructure program has been announced, which positions USDA Rural Development to support the further expansion of high-speed internet into rural areas.

More resources will also be available to support rural communities as they work to address opioid misuse.

Rural Development is committed to supporting rural communities and efforts to increase rural prosperity. Stay tuned for innovative tools and new resources that will empower Utah’s rural communities to attract high-paying jobs and grow their local economies.

Randy Parker is the State Director for USDA Rural Development in Utah.

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