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FAYETTEVILLE -- The difficulty of attracting home builders to rural areas threatens the recovery of cities such as Wynne after the tornadoes of March 31, said Xochitl Torres Small, undersecretary for rural development.

"If contractors don't go there to rebuild, Wynne will become a much smaller town," Small said. Home builders and contractors are drawn to booming housing markets like the cities in Northwest Arkansas, she and U.S. Sen. John Boozman of Rogers said.

Small joined Boozman and a panel of experts Monday at the Milo J. Shult Agricultural Research and Extension Center at the University of Arkansas to discuss rural issues. Boozman is the ranking Republican member of the U.S. Senate's Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Builders and contractors concentrate in booming markets while, at the same time, the lack of housing in rural areas helps drive more people to those cities, Small said. Boozman agreed, calling this urban-rural disparity a serious problem. The issue came up in questions from the audience of at least 40 and took up most of the hour and a half-long meeting.

"You can build exactly the same house and sell it for more in a growing area than in a rural one," Boozman said. At the same time, builders and contractors find it easier and cheaper to develop subdivisions in a booming town than haul materials out to rural areas to work on smaller housing projects, he said.

The housing shortage even affects rural areas with declining populations because existing housing in those areas is aging and, in many cases, deteriorating, Small and other panelists said.

The agriculture department recognized the problem with rural housing and was working with local authorities around the country to try and find solutions long before the latest tornadoes, Small said. The scale of destruction in the recent natural disaster only highlights the situation, she said. Small said she met with Wynne's mayor before coming to Fayetteville.

Smaller communities and rural areas are trying to form regional partnerships to draw builders and take a more coordinated approach on other issues, said Mike Malone, vice chancellor for economic development at the university. "Besides being rural, we're small," Malone said of Arkansas. "We really have to partner together."

A group of neighboring communities who banded together and cooperated on planning a development of, for instance, 45 houses would have a much better chance of attracting developers, contractors and financing for a joint project than smaller projects separately, panelists agreed.

Mayor Susan Wilson of Mountainburg in Crawford County, among others, said one of the biggest problems in rural development remains the difficulty of even applying for grants and other federal assistance and programs. The grant application for water projects in her community was more than 400 pages by the time the process was complete, she said.

Small rural towns lack the staff needed to comply with many federal programs set up to assist them, Wilson said, and other audience members agreed.

"You shouldn't have to hire a grant writer to do these things," Boozman said.

Another problem is the relative lack of philanthropy in rural areas, audience member Kim Davis, senior adviser for the Home Region Program of the Walton Family Foundation, told the panel. "Almost 20% of the [U.S.] population lives in rural areas but those areas draw between 5% and 7% of philanthropy dollars," he said.

Another major topic of the discussion was expanding broadband internet access. "We used to say economic development had three 'R's' -- roads, railroads and runways," Boozman said. "Not anymore. If you don't have good broadband you simply aren't going to grow."

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