Rural Development making a difference in Baker County

By ED MERRIMAN Baker City Herald August 06, 2010 10:45 am
Local projects have received nearly $6.2 million in loans and grants for housing, businesses

Vicki Walker, state USDA Rural Development director, toured sites around Baker County Tuesday where the agency has invested nearly $6.2 million dollars in loans and grants to subsidize low income and senior housing, and to help area businesses expand or retain jobs.

“There are people who tell us every day they would have no place to live if it wasn’t for rural development,” Walker said during a stop Tuesday at Elkhorn Village senior apartments in Baker City.

She said the apartments rent for around $510 a month, but for some seniors citizens, that would take their entire Social Security check, which in some cases is their only source of income.

For housing projects subsidized by rural development, the rent is on a sliding scale designed to limit rent to no more than 30 percent of a resident’s income, said Mark Green, project manager for Chrisman Development, which owns the Elkhorn Village apartments.

That formula reduces rents to around $200 per month for some of the senior citizens living in Elkhorn Village, Green said.

Many of the senior citizens living in subsidized apartments live alone — many are widowed and their families are far away, Walker said.

“It is important that we provide them with a safe and healthy place to live,” she said.

The hallways at Elkhorn Village are decorated with completed puzzles made by residents.

“They do potlucks here. It is so like home,” Walker said.

After touring other senior and low income housing projects in towns across Eastern Oregon this week, Walker said Elkhorn Village “is the best I’ve seen.”

However, she said that wasn’t always the case.

Before rural development provided funding to make repairs and add a commercial kitchen, upgrade the front entrance and common area, and add four apartment units,  Walker said, “this place was a dump.”

She said before the upgrade, the building had a lot of dry rot and other problems that the new owner cleaned up as part of the renovation.

“Now that we have made the improvements and have an owner who is dedicated to the property, I am proud to have the USDA participation,” said Walker, who was a former legislator from the Eugene area before President Barack Obama appointed her director over the Oregon office of USDA Rural Development in July 2009.

As part of their housing program, USDA Rural Development also funded improvements and expansion at Green Acres low-income apartments.

Under the agency’s business program, Walker said USDA Rural Development came through with funding and loan restructuring that saved 23 jobs at Thatcher Ace Hardware in Baker CIty, and also helped the company expand with a new La Grande branch earlier this year that created 12 new jobs in La Grande.

“We help small businesses grow and prosper,” Walker said. “Our business plan is in the top 10 percent in the nation.

“We obligate all of our money and then go back to the national office and are usually pretty successful at getting money that was obligated to other states, but they didn’t use it,” Walker said.

She said Oregon’s rural development office has a wide-ranging business loan program that is flexible enough to help small and big businesses, with loans for individual businesses of up to $12.5 million.

“We make our loan decisions right here at the Oregon office. You don’t have to wait around two months to get a decision from Washington D.C.,” Walker said.

In addition to the multi-family low income and senior housing programs, and the business loan programs, Walker said the Oregon office also has a variety of loan programs to help people buy or repair single family homes.

In many cases, she said people can qualify for loans in which rural development guarantees home loans made by local-area banks, and in other cases the agency can provide loans directly to home buyers.

Depending on the individual borrower’s financial situation and income, she said  some of the homes provided or guaranteed by rural development don’t even require a down payment.

The agency also provides low-interest loans and grants to fund community infrastructure projects, such as water and sewer systems, fire stations, community centers, libraries and things like drug and alcohol treatment facilities.

The list of recent loans and grants approved for those types of community projects around Baker County include as of July 30: $640,000 for the Baker House and $790,000 for Recovery Village drug and alcohol treatment centers in Baker City; an $804,000 loan and $1.3 million grant for Sumpter city water system; an $80,000 loan for Unity city water system; $1.2 million loan for Haines city water system; and $75,000 loan for Haines city shop.

Others include a $197,000 loan for Halfway city water system; $1 million loan for Powder Valley Water District water system and $1,925 rural fire district grant; and a $50,000 grant for the Medical Springs Rural Fire District.

While she enjoyed her 10 years serving in the Oregon Legislature, Walker said she loves her job as state director of USDA Rural Development.

“Every day I come into the office and say, ‘guys, can we help these people?’ ” Walker said.

“There are a lot of people out there who are out of work, or who own businesses and are struggling to keep their doors open,” Walker said. “We are here to help. We want everyone to know we are in their communities, helping them grow and thrive.”

 With future funding for USDA Rural Development programs under review by members of congress writing the 2011-2012 Farm Bill, Walker said she decided to tour some of the sites in Eastern Oregon where the agency has made investments in single and multi-family housing, businesses, water and sewer projects and other things from libraries to hospitals.

Walker said the tour is also intended to draw public attention to the assistance programs provided by USDA Rural Development so people know help is available.

“It is important for us to improve our outreach,” Walker said. “It is a shame to see people in need when we can help them.”