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Jasper Schneider, Published June 01 2013

Letter: Provide tools for success

My late father used to tell me that if you work smart, doors will open. Similarly, if you squander an opportunity, those doors slam shut. In that spirit, when we look back on this time of prosperity in North Dakota, my hope is that we can say we made good choices and wise investments. That was also the underlying message with the forward-looking North Dakota 2.0 initiative that spotlighted the future of our great state and the sentiments of our people.

Every generation hopes to build upon the efforts of the last. In my work with communities across North Dakota, it is clear that one of the best investments we can make to pay that debt of gratitude forward is an investment in people and infrastructure. During my four years at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and my time before that as a legislator, those principles have guided me.

In my experience working with people, the solution has always been fairly simple: provide folks with the tools and opportunities to succeed and most will. We have tremendous opportunities to invest in children, youth and adults to develop the leaders and workforce of tomorrow. At USDA, we have been making targeted investments to ensure that our schools have access to the fastest broadband available in order to promote distance-learning and other educational opportunities. We have also partnered with communities to try to solve the challenge of quality child care and advance early education for those precious and critical early years.

During my tenure at USDA, we have invested more than $2 billion in infrastructure to build a better North Dakota. The word “infrastructure” often conjures images of roads and bridges, but the term could also include utilities such as electric, telecom and water systems. Housing and health care infrastructure also fit an expanded definition. In that vein, the investments made a generation ago by our rural electric and telecom cooperatives, water districts and state leaders have paved the way for our current economic prosperity.

USDA is continuing those investments today with advancements in 21st-century infrastructure such as broadband Internet, which is changing the game for a rural state like North Dakota. We have also worked to update the aging health care infrastructure, provide quality housing and partner with our utilities to ensure that all parts of North Dakota have affordable, stable electricity and quality, safe drinking water.

Building a state takes a team effort. Despite our overall prosperity, we still have counties in North Dakota that have official unemployment rates as high as 15 percent and unofficial reports quoting much higher. We can do better. USDA has launched a StrikeForce Initiative to work across our agencies to target areas of persistently high poverty. We do this in conjunction with local partners, understanding that people working together solve problems.

North Dakota has a long legacy of defining our own future. Our rich history of cooperatives and institutions such as the Bank of North Dakota make us unique. We have also done well because of a large federal investment that has positioned a low-population prairie state as a global economic player. The farm bill is a good example of a federal investment that works to provide funding for infrastructure projects, protection for our producers and opportunities for communities.

As we prepare to write the next chapter of North Dakota, having an appreciation of the past can often be a guiding tool for looking ahead. Valuing what’s come before us, a humble awareness that we could get it wrong, and targeted, strategic investments in people and infrastructure are a good bet. Those investments pay huge dividends from generation to generation. The future of North Dakota is in front of us. Let’s not miss it.

Schneider, Bismarck, is director of USDA Rural Development for North Dakota.