In 2001, the Texas Legislature’s House Bill 7 created the Office of Rural Community Affairs (ORCA), a stand-alone state agency designed to ensure a continuing focus on rural issues, with activities ranging from researching problems, creating a rural work plan, and coordinating the state’s rural programs.
In 2009, the Legislature changed the name of ORCA to the Texas Department of Rural Affairs (TDRA) in order to solidify the agency’s role as a state entity and provider of state and federal grants, saying the previous name led rural communities and even other state agencies to believe that ORCA was a non-profit organization.
In 2011, the Legislature took action again, this time renaming the TDRA the Office of Rural Affairs (ORA), and placing the agency within the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA).
While the agency has changed names and now homes, the mission and slate of services are very much the same. Consider Dallam County’s experience with then-ORCA, now ORA.
In 2006, Dallam County secured a Texas Capital Fund (TCF) grant through ORCA to construct a railroad spur, said Dallam County Judge David Field. Incidentally, Dallam County may be the only county in Texas to own a railroad spur, Field added.
The spur goes to the Hilmar Cheese plant, which produces more than 1 million pounds of cheese per day and provides some 300 jobs at the plant and 1,200 jobs in surrounding counties for new dairies being built to supply the cheese plant.
“The grant was one of the carrots used to attract Hilmar Cheese to locate in Dalhart. It was originally for $750,000, but bids for the project came in very low, so we only spent $676,100,’’ Field said.
Presently, Dallam County has been approved to go forward on a $750,000 TCF grant to provide upgrades on existing county roads that will be serving Cargill Pork.
“This is a new 60,000 head sow facility that will be providing 300 new jobs,” Field explained. “New jobs are the main requirement for getting one of the TCF grants.”
TCF grants are just one tool available to rural counties through the ORA and its umbrella organization, the TDA.
TDA’s Office of Rural Affairs
The 82nd Texas Legislature abolished the Texas Department of Rural Affairs, established the Office of Rural Affairs, and merged the state agency into the Texas Department of Agriculture.
“Government should always look for more efficient ways to serve its citizens – especially at a time when families across Texas are stretching to make ends meet,” said Rick Rhodes, ORA administrator. “We appreciate the Legislature’s confidence in the Texas Department of Agriculture’s ability to provide exceptional service for all Texas citizens.”
The ORA’s overall mission is to partner with rural communities to help them grow their local economies, Rhodes stated.
“Through the delivery of our programs and services, we assist with efforts to create new jobs, attract new capital investment, and address health care and infrastructure needs,” he delineated. “In addition, we assist rural communities with utilizing useful programs from other state and federal agencies.”
As an agency under the umbrella of the TDA, ORA will serve as a “one-stop-shop” for rural counties, said Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples.
The goal of the TDA is to “improve rural economies” and partner with local leaders as they take on daily challenges, he continued, with a particular focus on:
- local job creation and attracting capital investment;
- meeting infrastructure needs; and
- ensuring adequate healthcare including access to technology and health care providers.
“Texas is going to be growing by the tens of millions over the next few decades,” Staples emphasized. “We must continue to be a state that attracts jobs and capital investment.”
As part of a major reorganization, the TDA will be cross-training regional employees so they will have full knowledge of available programs.
Programs Available to Texas Counties
Among the myriad of services offered by the TDA and ORA, three specific programs focus on the key challenges cited by Staples:
- Texas Capital Fund – grants to assists job creation projects
- Community Development Fund – grants to address rural infrastructure needs
- State Office of Rural Health – grants and services provided to rural hospitals
The Texas Capital Fund supports four main sub-programs to help attract new business, enhance community and county image, improve conditions for both current and future residents, and grow the area economy.
The Texas Capital Fund funnels money through the following:
- · Downtown Revitalization Program – Awards matching grant funds for public infrastructure to foster and stimulate economic development in rural downtown areas.
*Non-entitlement county and city governments may apply for these funds, with awards ranging from $50,000 to $150,000. The application deadline for this program is July of each year.
*The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provides federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds directly to states, which, in turn, provide the funds to small, rural cities with populations less than 50,000, and to counties that have a non-metropolitan population under 200,000 and are not eligible for direct funding from HUD. These small communities are called “non-entitlement” areas because they must apply for CDBG dollars through the Texas CDBG program. Larger cities, such as Dallas, Houston and others, receive CDBG monies directly from HUD, and are called “entitlement” areas.
- · Main Street Improvement Program – Provides eligible Texas Main Street communities with matching grants to expand or enhance public infrastructure in historic main street areas. Main Street-designated communities and non-entitlement communities may apply for these funds, with awards ranging from $50,000 to $150,000. The application deadline for this program is October of each year.
- · Infrastructure – This program supports rural business development, retention and expansion by providing funds for public infrastructure, real estate development, or the elimination of deteriorated conditions. Non-entitlement county and city governments may apply for these funds, with awards ranging from $50,000 to $150,000.The application deadline for this program is the 20th of each month.
- · Real Estate Development – Provides a zero-interest loan to fund real estate acquisition or improvements to create or retain permanent jobs in primarily rural communities and counties. Non-entitlement county and city governments may apply for these funds. The application deadline for this program is the 20th of each month.
Community Development Fund
Medina County was awarded a Community Development grant of $250,000 in 2008. The county used the funds to provide first-time water service to households that previously relied on failing wells in eastern Medina County. The project was accomplished by installing more than 11,000 linear feet of water line and connections to yard lines.
The focus of Community Development Grants is improvement of public infrastructure, water/wastewater facilities, streets, drainage and housing activities, with awards ranging from $75,000-$800,000. The Community Development Fund is the largest fund category in the Texas CDBG Program and is available on a biennial basis for funding through a competition in each of the 24 state planning regions.
State Office of Rural Health
Chambers County received a $600,000 grant from the State Office of Rural Health in ? to purchase a generator for its hospital in Anahuac, which is on the Texas Gulf Coast. During Hurricane Ike, when power was out in much of Chambers County, the hospital used the generator to remain operational and was able to successfully provide disaster relief services.
Eligible counties may apply to be a part of a variety of programs within this office.
v The Outstanding Rural Scholar Recognition Program is designed to assist rural communities in “growing their own” health care professionals by matching community funds with state funds to support a student of the community’s choice in a health professional education program. The student commits to serving in the rural area for a specified amount of time.
v The Rural Communities Healthcare Investment Program is designed to attract and retain healthcare professionals in rural communities by providing incentives such as stipends or loan repayment assistance to non-physician healthcare professionals who agree to practice in medically underserved areas.
v The Rural Health Facility Capital Improvement Loan Fund Program provides grants or loans to hospitals in rural counties to make capital improvements to existing health facilities, construct new health facilities, or purchase capital equipment. Hospitals eligible to apply for these funds are public and nonprofit facilities. The funds for this program are made available through a $50 million endowment from the Tobacco settlement. Each year, approximately $2 million is awarded to rural hospitals.
To view a complete listing of health-related programs, go to http://texasagriculture.gov/GrantsServices/RuralEconomicDevelopment/StateOfficeofRuralHealth/RuralHealthPrograms.aspx.
The new Office of Rural Affairs was moved within the TDA effective October 2011, and the office is still in the process of creating its own website, Rhodes said. Counties interested in applying for grants or accessing any service within the office should monitor the TDA site at www.texasagriculture.gov or contact Rhodes at 512-463-7577, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Office of Rural Affairs “is a stronger agency, and a stronger resource,” Staples maintained. “You have a combined legal time, a combined regional team…truly a one-stop-shop for any rural need.”