Building Back Better regional challenges plays catalytic role in accelerating economic development strategies across the nation

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Alejandra Y. Castillo, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development

By Alejandra Y. Castillo, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development

The Build Back Better Regional Challenge (BBBRC) – the marquee program of EDA’s American Rescue Plan programs – is a $1 billion investment towards competitiveness and prosperity of regional economies across the United States. It represents a bold belief that with the right resources , bottom-up and middle out economic participation of key stakeholders and an inclusive strategy all regions can successfully participate in the global economy and create good jobs for workers at all skill levels.

For too many Americans, the pandemic represents just the latest economic shock that has battered their communities, reduced wages, and eliminated entire local industries. Yet all US regions have existing assets that, with the right investments and stakeholder participation, can be built upon to ensure these places not only survive, but thrive in the modern, global economy.

The BBBRC is already playing a catalytic role in regions across the country by bringing together communities to accelerate the development of innovative and inspiring place-based economic development strategies that will transform the future for generations to come. Some of this collaboration might not have happened without BBBRC. The two-part competition will invest up to $100 million into 20-30 communities to implement multiple projects that together represent transformative economic development strategies.

In the last few months, I travelled the country visiting some of the Phase 1 finalists as part of EDA’s “Coalition Conversations”. I was truly humbled by the enthusiasm and local engagement that this challenge has sparked. Although these conversations were separate from the competition, and had no bearing on the merit review process, the coalitions who were invited to host a conversation put forth tremendous effort and execution, allowing EDA to learn vital lessons and concepts. For starters, Economic Development is a non-partisan issue bringing communities together. Also, regardless of the final awards, the competition itself brought communities together in a new and urgent way that helped accelerate their regional strategies and plans for their local economies.

BBBRC is an evolution in EDA’s approach. EDA has historically funded relatively small, independent projects. This program will provide a generation’s worth of economic development investments of $25 to $75 million, and possibly up to $100 million to communities, in just five years.

Finalists represent a cross-section of the country including 12 coal and 15 indigenous communities, and dozens of regions that comprise both urban and rural areas. Each finalist is building different industry sectors – such as advanced manufacturing, biotechnology, agriculture, aerospace, among others – and each is grappling with a different challenge and opportunity. Regardless of final selection, EDA is empowering each finalist coalition to build a strong economic roadmap that works for their community.

[Full list of finalists and industry sectors]

The BBBRC’s innovative competition structure has encouraged the development of true bottom-up strategies, as well as an acceleration of significant local partnerships, leveraging federal funds with local investments, new multi-sector governance models, and the blending and integration of programs where the whole is very much greater than the sum of the parts.

EDA is also providing unprecedented support for finalists to help their projects succeed. Each finalist was awarded a grant of approximately $500,000 to further develop their proposed projects. In addition, we built a Community of Practice to provide technical assistance and support finalists to hone their economic vision for their region, but we are also connecting finalists with other federal agencies and funding resources. As part of our virtual BBBRC Finalist Showcase last month, each finalist presented a 5-minute project presentation to corporate and philanthropic partners and funders.

[Watch the finalist presentations.]

Thanks to president Biden, EDA received $3 billion in American Rescue Plan funding for critical programs to help communities build back from the economic shocks of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as address years of disinvestment. The Build Back Better Regional Challenge has helped highlight the immense need and market demand for place-based federal investment in every corner of the country.

To continue our vital mission of responding to new economic development challenges, EDA is currently working with Congress on legislation that would reauthorize our agency to evolve and modernize our tools to provide the services that communities across the nation need to build contemporary, resilient economies.

Click here for my full Senate testimony on reauthorization.

Reauthorization will allow EDA to respond to new economic development challenges, such as ensuring an equitable and inclusive economy, combating climate change, helping Americans secure good-paying jobs, strengthening our domestic and global supply chain, and developing manufacturing capacity to make goods in America.

Our collective goal must be to best position EDA to support the competitive, innovative, impactful economic development strategies that our communities are pursuing today, like those in the BBBRC.

There is tremendous demand for these innovative funding opportunities. The BBBRC received 529 total applications for the first phase of the competition, of which it selected 60 finalists to apply for Phase 2 funding. These finalists requested $4.3 billion in total implementation investments, or more than four times the available funding.

Reauthorization would give EDA the ability to adapt to help communities set the course toward a brighter future.

We anticipate announcing our final selections in the BBBRC by September 2022. All BBBRC finalist coalitions should be applauded for their commitment to fostering equitable and sustainable economic development in communities across our country. I hope it inspires other regions to build their own coalitions and develop big, aspirational plans. EDA will be here to partner with you.

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