Whether it is investing in a coal mining community, or in regional tourism, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo says new “investing in America” grants being announced Thursday are designed so every community in America feels empowered and included to get back on their feet in the wake of the pandemic.
She said the Commerce Department is making $3 billion in grants available for a myriad of programs, using funds passed as part of the American Rescue Plan.
Interested communities will have to apply for the grants, which exclude businesses.
“It’ll be a nationwide competition to quite literally ‘build back better,"” Raimondo told ABC News’s Karen Travers, using the name President Joe Biden uses for his recovery program. “Building back certain communities from the ground up so that everybody can thrive in the new economy.”
With concerns growing about how long current price surges will last, Raimondo said the Biden administration is watching inflation “very closely.”
“And not, you know, not trying to deny that there’s a link between large fiscal stimulus and inflation,” she said, “but inflation is not the only thing we need to be worried about.”
Raimondo said the kind of funding the Commerce Department is investing in communities can be “quite beneficial” in countering inflation.
“These are investments in productivity. And that’s what we need to be making. Every economist will tell you, you want to invest, to enhance productivity, and that’s exactly what this is,” Raimondo said. “This is investments in infrastructure, investments in skills, education, job training, and those are not inflation creating expenditures of money.”
The grants will be distributed through the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration.
Programs include the “Build back better challenge,” in which regions can apply for up to $100 million to “accelerate recovery and inclusive economic growth by developing new industries or expanding existing ones through planning, infrastructure development, workforce training, innovation and commercialization, access to capital, and more,” the department said.
Those programs include $300 million to invest in communities affected by the shrinking coal mining industry.
“We also need to be there for communities that have been traditionally dependent on coal,” Raimondo explained. “And so that’s what this money is for putting folks to work in those communities, making investments in those communities so they benefit from the transition to renewables, whether that’s retraining, or innovation hubs or building infrastructure.”
Raimondo insisted there would be no political considerations when grants are made to coal mining communities, especially since influential Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin represents West Virginia, a state hit hard by the industry downturn.
“It isn’t just West Virginia. It’s Virginia, it’s West Virginia it’s Ohio with Kentucky it’s you know it’s not about one state it’s about being honest with people and creating jobs for people everywhere,” she explained.
Another program is aimed at getting Americans back to work through investments in worker training and in funding infrastructure projects.
“So, the way it works is pretty simple: a group of companies would come together in a community, they would say, ‘we have 1000 open jobs right now,’ for example, in order to hire people for those jobs. ‘These are the skills they need to have,"” she said. “Then the money that we’re providing would train those people in exactly those skills, and here’s the best part, the businesses have to hire the folks, so that this is not trained, and pray and get a job. This is enroll, train, graduate, get your job.”
The Commerce Department also will focus on providing funds for underserved communities, providing regional tourism grants, and helping communities plan for any potential economic hardship in the future.
Raimondo said the administration is not telling local communities how to invest their money, but rather providing a road map.
“This is bottom up,” she said. “This is not Washington telling any community, how to do economic development. Every community has certain strengths, maybe it’s, a certain talent pool, maybe it’s, I don’t know tourism, maybe it’s a certain kind of skill set, maybe it’s a certain technical know how. So each community wants to build on those strengths, and then use our funds to kind of supercharge those efforts.”
Money will be available almost immediately especially for communities impacted by a lack of tourism because of the pandemic, Raimondo explained.
“There’s so many communities that have lost jobs because of the lack of travel and lack of tourism,” she said. “You need help yesterday and we know that.”
Raimondo also touted the $1.2 billion infrastructure bill being debated in Congress.
In 2016, when she was governor of Rhode Island, she passed “Rhode Works,” a sweeping infrastructure measure targeted at fixing Rhode Island’s roads and bridges, which then were among the worst in the nation. The cornerstone of the program was imposing tolls on truckers to pass through the state in order to fund the project.
“It was none other than Vice President Joe Biden, who traveled to Rhode island with me to stand under a crumbling bridge to say, ‘get behind this governor and let’s make this infrastructure investment happen,"” she said.
She urged Congress to pass the bill, saying that while it might seem controversial now, once communities see money being put into action, it will be seen as favorable.
“It is the right thing to do. And even if it’s controversial at the moment, we got to push it over the finish line is the American people want and deserve better infrastructure,” Raimondo told Travers. “And I promise you, it will be popular once you see the road crews out there making communities better and safer.”
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