RIPON - Anne Hazlett will be following in her boss's footsteps as she travels across the country meeting with federal, state and community leaders in her quest to improve the way government agencies work with stakeholders to help rural areas.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development's very first stop was the Willmore Center at Ripon College on Monday, Feb. 5, where she led the first of several national Rural Prosperity Roundtables.

Hazlett is leading a Rural Development initiative that was set forth by the Trump Administration's Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. Perdue spent months on the road investigating the circumstances and situations facing rural America, and to formulate concrete solutions.

Perdue's final report contains more than 100 practical, actionable recommendations for economic growth in five key areas: e-connectivity; quality of life; rural workforce; technology and economic development.

“Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has given us a very clear goal and that is to use our (USDA) resources, our people and our programs to build prosperity in these rural communities," Hazlett told local, state and federal officials. "But we at the USDA know that we cannot build prosperity in these communities alone. We must work closely with our partners; whether it's other federal, state or local agencies or rural leaders. I'm here to listen and learn from other leaders here today."

Monday's discussion focused on economic development, quality of life and e-connectivity (or broadband access/high speed internet in rural areas). Several panelists stressed the importance of providing broadband access to citizens in their rural communities.

"Secretary Perdue says that broadband is the electricity of the modern age," Hazlett said. "There is a considerable percentage of people living in rural America that do not have access to broadband speed that is necessary for advanced communication."

Before Fond du Lac County entered into an agreement with Bug Tussel Wireless to provide high-speed wireless broadband service, there were many areas in the county that were under-served or had no service available.

"Baker Cheese (located in St. Cloud) employees had to go home to do a lot of their work on the internet because they couldn't do it at the plant," said Fond du Lac County Executive Allen Buechel. "These improved speeds are critical out in our agricultural community as well as the business community."

Rep. Nancy VanderMeer said a bill she authored last year helps to put grant funds into the hands of rural school districts and libraries to help provide internet access to residents and students.

"We have students that need to do homework but don't have internet connectivity at home, so these grants help purchase hotspot devices so they can get their homework done," VanderMeer said. "For those who live in more urban areas, it may seem very unusual to them that we would be struggling out here to create that connectivity."

Public Service Commission's State Broadband Director, Angie Dickison, said one of the hurdles communities face in accessing broadband services is funding.

"It's related to the economics of return on investment," she said. "Because we don't have that population density it's more challenging for private companies to make those projects feasible."

Steve Schneider, president and CEO of Bug Tussel Wireless LLC says the lengthy permitting process is the company's most significant gating factor.

"We have roughly 27 approvals (with outside agencies) before we can proceed with a site," he said. "The second thing is, while money is important, sustainability of the service for the long-term is even more important."

He said providing broadband service is more than access to "Netflix and email" and has the ability to serve the greater community when partnered with healthcare facilities, technical colleges and other educational institutions and businesses.

Hazlett says its critical to host these roundtables across the country.

"I'm trying to be out on the road as much as I can because you can't learn what the needs of the community are in D.C., so it's important to be out here learning on the ground."

Following Monday's roundtable, Hazlett traveled to the Skana Aluminum company in Manitowoc to meet with company officials and the city's mayor - something she plans to do in several cities around the country.

"Going into communities and touring business operations and actually seeing people at their place of business and operation helps you to see what the real needs are, and what the real opportunities are and view some of the best practices."

Panelists included: Frank Frassetto, State Director, WI Rural Development; Congressman Glenn Grothman (R-Glenbeulah); Allen Buechel, Fond du Lac County Executive; Zach Messitte, President of Ripon College; Sen. Dan Feyen (R-Fond du Lac 18th District); Phil Stuart, CEO of Tomah Memorial Hospital; Cristina Danforth, CEO of Oneida Tribe Chairwoman and Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council Inc.;State Rep. Nancy VanderMeer (R-Tomah 70th Assembly District); Kate Zueske, Department of Administration; Dan Smith, Division of Ag Development, Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection; William Martin, Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority Foundation; Angie Dickison, Public Service Commission; and Steve Schneider, Bug Tussel Wireless serving Wisconsin’s rural communities.

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