Snub leads to battle cry of 'rural discrimination'

AP News
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Posted: Jun 03, 2011 1:58 PM
Snub leads to battle cry of 'rural discrimination'

Folks living in far-flung places like Fort Kent can be forgiven for feeling overlooked by federal bureaucrats because of their remote location, nearly 300 miles from the state capital and a world away from Washington. All the same, it still stings when someone openly admits a remote town isn't worth the hassle.

A federal contractor wrote that Fort Kent's location _ "WAAAAAAYY off the beaten path" _ created difficult logistics and grounds for rejecting a $125,000 grant aimed at preventing underage drinking. Fort Kent was one of four finalists for the grants, which went to Mason City, Iowa, and Louisville, Ky.

Angry over the snub, Sen. Olympia Snowe declared that tiny Fort Kent at the northernmost tip of Maine is the victim of "rural discrimination."

"This community group met all the stated requirements for this competitive grant, but the application was denied because a government contractor stated the town is too far `off the beaten path' to and would be `inconvenient' for contractors to visit," she said.

Snowe said Administrator David Strickland from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which awarded the grant, would pay a visit to talk about the snub.

Community Voices Coalition applied for the grant to create a pilot program aimed at limiting teen access to alcohol, and the proposal won praise from a federal contractor.

But the contractor, PerformTech of Alexandria, Va., didn't like the remote location of Fort Kent, a town of 4,100 people on the Canadian border.

"Fort Kent is WAAAAAAYY off the beaten path. The panel felt that the logistics of getting our staff and consultants there and back was just too time-consuming and expensive, compared with other communities," PerformTech wrote in an email. The deciding factor was "convenience," the email said.

A PerformTech spokeswoman didn't immediately return a call.

In a statement, Strickland said NHTSA is reviewing the grant process. "The agency categorically disavows the language used by the contractor in this case. It does not reflect this agency's position regarding rural communities nor the process we have approved for selecting transportation safety projects," Strickland said.

Fort Kent is in a unique position because the legal age to drink across the border is 19 in New Brunswick, and 18 in nearby Quebec. The Community Voices Proposal called for a demonstration project targeting underage drinking through law enforcement strategies, community work and social marketing, among other things.

Project Manager Michelle Plourde Chasse said she personally logged 170 hours into the proposal in 2010 and 2011. Never did she figure the town's geography would be become a negative factor. She said her jaw was on the floor when she read the May 9 email from PerformTech.

Fort Kent Town Manager Donald Guimond said he admired the PerformTech official's candor but said it's unfair that geography played a role in the grant process.

"We are geographically isolated in many ways, but we are still a part of the U.S. _ the last time I looked anyway," he said in a telephone interview.