Thursday, August 10, 2006
State Rural Development director leaves post
By SUE WATSON
Nick Walters, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development, is resigning after five and a half years at the agency.
He will enter the private sector after leaving Rural Development in August, to work from the other side of the table in the public sector.
Walters said his main role as director was to communicate with local elected officials, mayors, supervisors, and development professionals to raise awareness across the state of the availability of funds available at Rural Development to build homes, build community water systems, and provide equipment to volunteer fire departments and to law enforcement.
The Mississippi office of Rural Development tripled its funding of community projects under his leadership.
For that he is most proud.
“There are people in homes, who didn’t have a home; communities with water that had no water; fire departments that have equipment that didn’t have equipment,” he said.
Many rural communities did not know they had to apply and didn’t know sources of funding for these projects existed, he said.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is people get help that wouldn’t be helped otherwise. I couldn’t stand the thought that money would be laying there,” Walters said.
He said he feels the job as director of Rural Development prepared him to understand more clearly how projects come together and how resources can be leveraged from different sources to get a project done.
“I will basically be doing the same thing, but just on the other side of the fence,” he said.
Walters said there are still plenty of areas across the state and nation that do not have good drinking water; there are still people who would like to be a homeowner; there is a lot of aging infrastructure needing replacing; and not a lot of places to get money for these projects.
He found that when community leaders have a vision for where growth will occur next and when repairs are needed on aging infrastructure, when long range funding is planned, then Rural Development can be its best.
Walters said with leaders who have a strong vision of the future of where they want to go and how they are going to get there, Rural Development can best work alongside the community.
“It makes it easy for us when leaders like Byhalia Mayor Scooter Dempsey, Holly Springs Mayor Andre’ DeBerry and managers like Larry Hall and Bill Renick can say ‘here’s our vision for the community.’ We can’t do it (planning) for them.”
He also thanked the many newspapers across the state that helped raise awareness of Rural Development and what it does.
One project still warm in Walters’ mind is helping Strawberry Plains Audubon plan for Eco-Tourism and how that fits into the Mississippi Hills Heritage Area Alliance for tourism.
“That was one unique project I enjoyed,” he said.
Walters also took personal satisfaction helping the town of Byhalia find funds for its new Town Hall, water and sewer projects and police cars. The Hickory Flat Clinic was another favorite project.
During the entire time Walters was at Rural Development he never filled out an application; he was constantly traveling across the state educating and building awareness of how to plan and get projects funded, he said.
He praised his staff, people like Johnny Shell and Melanie Balducci at the Batesville Office, for their teamwork in getting applications processed while he spent most all his time travelling over the state raising awareness of sources of funding.
Marshall County Industrial Development Authority Director Bill Renick said raising awareness of availability of money for projects was Walters’ strong point.
“Nick knew that getting that money out into Mississippi was what he was supposed to be doing,” Renick said. “So Nick had his people in his (district) offices like Johnny Shell from Batesville, going out to local areas and saying, ‘What do you need.’ He also knew if there were other states who were not aggressive in using their funds that the money left over was up for grabs.
“Nick was on a mission to see Mississippi get not only its part but somebody else’s part.”
Although Walters is from south Mississippi, he was very helpful to the counties in north Mississippi, Renick said.
“I think Byhalia has been approved for another major expansion of its gas system which will help us at Chickasaw Trails,” Renick said. “And Holly Springs is approved for a police station which will set the Holly Springs Commons area in motion.
“Nick was literally out there hounding folks to take the money. He knew there was enough need in this state to use our part and somebody else’s, too.”
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