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White House puts out a playbook to help rural areas get infrastructure funding


Members of President Biden's Cabinet are traveling in rural America this month. They're encouraging local officials to seek funding from the infrastructure law that Biden signed last year. Local officials in smaller communities have concerns about the paperwork. Here is Arizona Public Media's Megan Myscofski.

MEGAN MYSCOFSKI, BYLINE: Mignonne Hollis heads the three-person economic development organization in Cochise County, Ariz., home to about 125,000 people.

MIGNONNE HOLLIS: Elected officials, they really like it as a buzzword and when it's sexy, but economic development, to its core, is dirty and hard.

MYSCOFSKI: The infrastructure law will provide money to fund dozens of the kinds of projects that Hollis works on, but...

HOLLIS: It's a lot of work. Typically, it's just me trying to do all of that. And then that process can take such a long time that you're missing out on other opportunities for your organization.

MYSCOFSKI: The White House has put out a rural playbook that highlights funding opportunities for those outside cities. Adie Tomer researches infrastructure policy at the Brookings Institution. He says applying for infrastructure law funding is going to be a stretch for small offices like Hollis'.

ADIE TOMER: Cities like Phoenix and Tucson, they're going to have the staff around. They may not be assigned to it right now, but they can quickly get up to speed.

MYSCOFSKI: And unlike COVID relief funds, the bulk of this money will go through state governments first. Mildred Warner teaches city and regional planning at Cornell University. She says local governments are going to need help from above to get the federal money and to put it to use effectively.

MILDRED WARNER: What's been happening in the last - I don't know - 20 years is this cooperative federalism has become a little less cooperative.

MYSCOFSKI: What she means is, some states pass responsibilities down to the local level without money or assistance.

WARNER: And I would call that an uncooperative federalism.

MYSCOFSKI: Arizona's Republican governor, Doug Ducey, is philosophically opposed to big-government solutions and has clashed with the Biden administration on COVID relief funding. Last week, Ducey announced a task force that'll plan for how the infrastructure law money will be used in the state.

HOLLIS: But this building is just for people that are starting off...

MYSCOFSKI: Back in Cochise County, Mignonne Hollis knows a little federal help can go a long way. She got COVID relief money to set up a rural telemedicine center and quickly hired Sarah Challender to help.

SARAH CHALLENDER: She was very intent and passionate.

HOLLIS: I was very intent about talking to Sarah.

MYSCOFSKI: Challender helps people who come in with telemedicine appointments, something many county residents don't have a strong enough internet connection to do at home.

HOLLIS: It's a very calming blue. In telehealth, especially for behavioral health, it needs to be this shade of blue.

MYSCOFSKI: Hollis says the federal assistance is making a difference. Now with infrastructure law money on the table, she's looking into what else she might be able to do.

HOLLIS: And when you look to see where we are, we need lots of help. And we've got to get it now before there's nothing left.

MYSCOFSKI: In a town where the population is declining as people leave for better jobs and quality of life, Hollis says they're not going to attract flashy, big businesses. So she says it's crucial they don't miss out on this historic funding opportunity. For NPR News, I'm Megan Myscofski in Tucson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.