The Department of Agriculture is moving quickly to implement its planned move of the Economic Research Service and National Institute of Food and Agriculture out of Washington, D.C., requesting “expressions of interest” (EOIs) about new locations for the two agencies.

In a Federal Register notice that will be published Wednesday, USDA said it wants to hear about potential locations from “state and local governments, industry, academia, interested parties and organizations (about) potential locations that would accommodate the construction and/or lease and operation of a NIFA and/or ERS headquarters facility.”

The EOIs cannot be lengthy. USDA said it would accept submissions of “no more than” five pages long, in 12-point font, including a map. 

USDA announced last week it planned to move the two agencies by the end of 2019. 

There has been relatively little congressional reaction so far, but lawmakers have been in recess since the plan was announced. 

The chairman of the Senate Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, John Hoeven, R-N.D., was notified ahead of the plan’s release by Deputy Agriculture Secretary Steve Censky and plans to support the move. 

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“We will work with USDA to make sure that the reorganization is implemented properly so that it is beneficial to our farmers and ranchers,” Hoeven’s office said in a statement to Agri-Pulse

GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer, who is running for North Dakota’s other Senate seat, now held by Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, has sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, pitching Fargo as a new home for ERS and NIFA. Fargo is home to North Dakota State University. 

The department said a new NIFA facility would need to provide 90,000 square feet for about 360 employees and a new ERS facility would need to be up to 70,000-square feet to accommodate about 260 employees. 

“Appropriations will dictate the ultimate size of the selection,” USDA said, adding that it would be open to housing the two agencies together or separately in different locations.

NIFA’s lease with the General Services Administration is due to expire soon, USDA said in the notice, which did not mention when the ERS lease is expiring.

“This inquiry is intended to continue the implementation of Secretary Perdue’s goal of ensuring USDA programs are delivered efficiently, effectively, and with integrity and a focus on customer service,” USDA said. “With the expiration of the current lease for the NIFA headquarters facility and the ability of ERS to vacate its existing lease there is an opportunity for the agencies to be closer to its customers and facilitate economic development in Rural America.”

The request for expressions of interest (EOI’s) is the first step in the process, USDA said.

“USDA will evaluate each EOI submission using the four criteria in no particular order (transportation logistics, workforce, community/quality of life, and capital and operating costs) to determine if it should be further evaluated as part of the location selection process,” the department said.

“Locating NIFA and ERS headquarters in a community includes a significant opportunity to improve economic conditions and create employment opportunities,” USDA said. “It is important that the potential site be in close proximity to a critical mass of intellectual capacity and potential employees to continue the high value and productive work of NIFA and ERS.”

The department mentioned the advantages of moving to an area that is less expensive and less congested than the nation's capitol. 

“Though the Washington D.C. area has many positive attributes, it routinely ranks as having some of the longest commute times and one of the highest costs of living in the nation,” USDA said. “USDA wants to locate the NIFA and ERS headquarters in a community where our employees will enjoy living, recreational opportunities, educational opportunities, and an overall high quality of life.”

In addition to initial investments and ongoing operational costs, USDA said information security will be critical for the new ERS location. “ERS is an integral agency for the Office of the Chief Economist Office’s World Agricultural Outlook Board activities,” USDA said. “Therefore, the new location will be required to offer secure and confidential connectivity to the USDA’s South Building to facilitate monthly teleconferences with the Interagency Commodity Estimates Committee meetings.”

Perdue’s plan would move ERS from the research, economics and education (REE) mission area at USDA to the Office of the Chief Economist, which is under the secretary’s office. 

ERS and OCE were together with the World Agricultural Outlook Board under an assistant secretary for economics until a 1994 reorganization eliminated that position and moved ERS under the new undersecretary for REE. The chief economist and WAOB were put under the secretary’s office. A longtime USDA economist familiar with the reorganization said the original plan was to keep OCE and WAOB together with ERS under the research mission area but that then-Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy felt he needed quicker access to the OCE and WAOB economists. 

Aides to the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, respectively, declined comment on the plan.

A spokesman for the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said his staff was gathering information on the plan. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, provided no comment. 

A spokesman for the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., also hasn’t responded to requests for comment.

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