PLATTSBURGH — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand hopes the 2018 Farm Bill will be a platform for rural-based manufacturing companies.
The 2014 Farm Bill’s Rural Business Development Grant offered monetary assistance to towns, nonprofits and institutes of higher education, but manufacturers were left ineligible, she said during a visit to the Norsk Titanium facility on Monday afternoon.
“Under the United States Department of Agriculture, we’ve been able to put a lot of funds in to help value added businesses, to help farms grow, sell their products worldwide,” she said.
“What we realized is that in rural communities, we also tend to have a tradition in manufacturing, and there’s not a real funding stream for that.
“So if we can open up an existing program that works, put more money in, we could fund both farms and agriculture jobs, but also manufacturing jobs.”
Gillibrand sang her praises of Norsk after touring the manufacturing facility.
The New York senator, a Democrat, was in town to promote the Rural Jobs and Investment Act — an amendment to the Farm Bill that she anticipates aiding rural manufacturing companies like Norsk Titanium.
“Gillibrand’s proposal creates a new grant program that could build on this comprehensive initiative to invest in local efforts to launch new companies and create new jobs in the North Country’s transportation equipment manufacturing sector,” the senator’s press release said.
Limited to rural areas, the proposed funding is intended to connect businesses to new markets, offer training opportunities, fund infrastructure updates, upgrade research institutions to the company level and create innovation centers.
“And it’s real money,” Gillibrand said.
“You can get grants anywhere from $500,000 up to $2 million — which for a manufacturing facility is exactly the kind of resources they need to get up and running and take their businesses to the next level.”
The grants are also intended for investments in business incubators, makerspaces and job-training centers to create ongoing assistance for local entrepreneurs, the press release said.
Gillibrand said investors are currently unaware that high-tech industries — such as Norsk Titanium — are setting up shop in rural areas.
“We need to change the view of what investments make sense and why investing in a rural area is so important,” she said.
Currently, the Rural Business Investment Program is in place to do just that, but Gillibrand said it has some issues.
“This program is limited in the types of industries that it can invest in, as well as the amount of capital it can attract,” her press release said.
The amendment, it said, would improve the program to allow investments across all industries, encouraging more capital to be invested in rural entrepreneurs.”
Gillibrand’s proposal, with bipartisan support, was written into the Farm Bill passed by the Senate in June.
The 2018 Farm Bill is currently under negotiation; the 2014 bill expires at the end of this month.
“Because it is bipartisan, I think it has a great chance at succeeding and staying in the bill and being signed into the law,” Gillibrand said.
“I think it’s one of the most important things we can do to keep jobs here and to help create new ones in the future.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 54 percent of North Country communities saw more businesses close than open from 2012 to 2016, the senator’s press release said.
“This problem is much worse in our rural communities than it is in our cities, so we have to fix that,” Gillibrand said.
North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas said even though the North Country has 50 manufacturers in its seven counties, with 8,500 employees, the region is still classified as rural.
“We talk about a rural region; it’s not just the farm area, it’s the entire region of the North Country, classified by its population, its demographics and characteristics,” Douglas said.
“We’ve always, on a federal level, been at a disadvantage in competing for federal economic development funds, particularly through (Economic Development Administration) but also through (the U.S. Department of Agriculture).
“There either haven’t been enough funds or they’ve been skewed towards metro areas.”
Douglas believes the Rural Jobs and Investment Act would help both the region’s large manufacturers and small agri-businesses.
“There’s not an easy fix to job generation anywhere,” he said.
“Even during a robust period of national economic growth, for rural areas the challenges are still the challenges and you need to address them step by step, and I think we’re doing that.
“It’s building blocks.”