One source of funding for the construction of the Funland playground in Hermiston will provide a boost to future community projects as well.

The funding comes in the form of a $250,000 investment through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant Program.

In this case, fundraisers working on behalf of the city to raise money for Funland have offered sponsors the opportunity to spread payments for large donations out over multiple years. Working through Umatilla Electric Cooperative, the city tapped into the USDA program to cover the difference up front, and will pay UEC back as sponsors make their payments.

The program provides grants and zero-interest loans to rural utilities, which in turn pass the money along to municipalities, businesses or nonprofits working in projects designed to create or retain employment in a rural area, according to a news release.

Twenty percent of the interest-free loan to the city came from UEC’s Revolving Loan Fund and 80% came from the USDA, UEC spokesperson Steve Meyers said. When the city repays the loan, however, the Revolving Loan Fund will be able to keep 100% of the funds, enabling UEC to reinvest that money into future community projects rather than sending it back to the federal government.

According to information provided by UEC, Funland is the fourth USDA REDLG project UEC has backed since the inception of its Revolving Loan Fund. In addition to community projects, the fund also provides low-interest loans to businesses. As of mid-2020, Meyers said, UEC has made 13 loans to area businesses, totaling $1,627,250 from the original three projects. Six loans have been repaid in full.

“We are proud and excited to be able to leverage these USDA funds to help further the return of Funland, and we commend all who planned and built this worthwhile community project,” Robert Echenrode, general manager and CEO of the Umatilla Electric Cooperative, said in a statement.

The wooden playground at Butte Park burned down in a suspected arson in 2019, and the city is rebuilding the site with a larger, improved version made of materials less susceptible to vandalism or arson. The project also includes improved security and lighting, an additional picnic shelter, and a building that will house restrooms and a concessions stand.

“Repairing damage from a fire can strain the finances of a small, rural community,” Jill Rees, SDA Rural Development acting state director for Oregon, said in a statement announcing the grant. “The broad support community members, the town, and utility provider have demonstrated for rebuilding shows the importance residents place on healthy outdoor activities for local families and children.”

Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley sent out a joint statement applauding the use of $250,000 in federal funds to support the project, as did Congressman Cliff Bentz.

“Especially in the middle of a deadly pandemic that is forcing Oregonians to make countless sacrifices, our families and our children need fun and safe places to play outside,” Merkley said.

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