KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Sreedhar Upendram, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, has received the 2021 Bonnie Teater Community Development Early Career Achievement Award from the Southern Rural Development Center. Notably, Upendram developed an ability-to-pay index that enabled unprecedented sharing of data and resources across federal and state agencies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized the index as a novel model for identifying and assessing disadvantaged communities, a priority under the Biden Administration.
Joining the UT Institute of Agriculture in 2017, Upendram's community development program quickly gained momentum. His use of applied research combined with UT Extension outreach allowed him to identify and strategically assist the state's most distressed rural communities. Assessing the most urgent community needs, he turned his focus to rural water infrastructure, broadband access and digital literacy.
Addressing these needs requires substantial funding, and Upendram successfully attracted more than 20 grants for a total of $8.6 million to support these efforts. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) and EPA Region 4 provided grant funding that Upendram used to develop a decision tool to help state and federal agencies, local governments and communities assess their capacity to improve water infrastructure. Applying this tool to Tennessee, he produced an ability-to-pay index covering all 95 counties and 347 cities, towns and municipalities in the state. This index is currently being used by TDEC to prioritize $115 million in clean water and $94 million in drinking water funding and by the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development (ECD) to allocate $24 million in Community Development Block Grants.
Since Upendram implemented his targeted educational program, the TDEC State Revolving Fund program has experienced a 60% increase in small and disadvantaged communities applying for loans. The increased demand led to the creation of new grants and new pilot project opportunities to help address water infrastructure needs across TDEC, ECD and USDA-Rural Development. The index tool has been the foundation of these efforts, and Upendram continues to serve as an integral partner.
"Dr. Upendram's dedication and selfless service to this project has fundamentally changed the way that the State of Tennessee identifies and addresses small and disadvantage communities who need critical help with water infrastructure," said Leslie Gillespie-Marthaler, former TDEC State Revolving Fund director. "These programs have incorporated the ability-to-pay index into their formal processes, and the tool is now driving allocation of resources to these communities in an unprecedented way. His contributions initiated a new way of doing business with the communities in Tennessee that need help the most."
To address the digital divide and improve broadband access for rural residents, Upendram conducted a highly successful pilot study of mobile hotspot lending that has been expanded to six rural counties and 11 elementary schools. Participating counties have leveraged the program to obtain additional resources, while nonparticipating counties have asked to be included in future efforts. He is also working on a downtown Wi-Fi program funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission to improve tourism, entrepreneurship and economic development in a rural Tennessee county. He also collaborated with Purdue University to develop digital divide profiles for all 95 counties in Tennessee. These profiles inform local and state decision-makers about the state of broadband infrastructure and how it varies with socioeconomic and other conditions across Tennessee communities.
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