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Utah mayor calls for more federal dollars for rural communities

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Wednesday, April 10, 2024   

Federal and agency officials convened with stakeholders in Southeastern Utah to discuss how federal funds can help grow and strengthen local economies.

Lenise Peterman, mayor of Helper in Carbon County, said money from major legislation like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act often bypasses communities like hers, which are often the most in need.

Peterman was part of the "Coal Country at a Crossroads Listening Session," examining the challenges of smaller, rural communities in addressing needs for clean energy, workforce and economic development, and infrastructure.

"I felt very optimistic, because I felt like I was no longer just this region, somewhere tucked away in the intermountain area, but somebody that they had to look at and see, and hear them say, 'I need to get this funding. How do I do this?'" Peterman recounted.

Like many rural towns, Helper has seen a declining coal industry. In 2022, five operators in Utah produced coal worth $504 million, down 15% from the previous year. Peterman pointed out power plants and coal mines have traditionally been the sources of well-paid jobs, but communities like hers are figuring out how to adapt with the times and ensure people can continue to call rural Utah home.

Peterman said she considers the listening session a success, as it brought together federal officials and local leaders to focus on possible solutions. She noted one message was the government may need to do more to ensure communities like Helper, as she put it, "don't fall through the cracks."

"How do we equate a rural community with these more urban areas that have headcount, and have people on staff who can look into these federal funding opportunities and collect them?" Peterman suggested.

She added she works with a team of 15 other individuals but is the sole grant writer for her town. Legislation in Congress, called the "Rebuild Rural America Act," would have allocated money to help smaller communities compete for federal dollars but got stuck in a Senate committee last year.


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