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Big Sky Connection - Rural communities often struggle to apply for federal dollars, such as from grants. A $1 billion pilot program in the CHIPS Act is expected to help them. Comments from Kathleen Williams, Montana state director, USDA Rural Development; and Matt Hildreth, executive director, '' and Education Fund.


Click on the image for the audio. - Philipsburg is a small town in western Montana with fewer than 1,000 people, according to the 2020 Census. (mandritoiu/Adobe Stock)

Eric Tegethoff

August 25, 2022

A program approved by Congress aims to give rural communities a boost when applying for federal dollars.

The CHIPS Act, passed last month, boosts semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. It also includes a $1 billion pilot program to help distressed communities apply for economic development funds.

Kathleen Williams, Montana state director for U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, said the size of small communities can be a hindrance to applying for federal money.

"Sometimes it's capacity to have grant writers or hire grant writers or go through the application process or do the reporting," Williams explained.

Williams noted the Agriculture Department able to provide technical assistance for communities to boost their capacity.

The pilot program in the CHIPS Act is based on legislation known as the RECOMPETE Act and will be handled by the Economic Development Administration within the U.S. Department of Commerce. It is coming at an especially critical time as legislation such as the infrastructure package passed in Congress directs billions of dollars to states.

Matt Hildreth, executive director of, said big cities typically are first in line for federal grants, but he believes the new program could bring change.

"It targets funds specifically to small towns and rural communities, and communities across the country that are economically distressed," Hildreth pointed out. "And ensures that they have a shot at getting access to those federal funds as well."

He emphasized the vast majority of communities classified as "economically distressed" are rural, and stressed each place has different development needs, from more broadband to help to transition between industries. He added under the pilot program, communities will guide the investments.

"It allows local leaders to have the flexibility they need to invest in the challenges that they see in their specific community," Hildreth stated. "It's not a one-size-fits-all approach. It is a locally-led approach."