Hawkins will lead an agency that invested $640.5 million in the state last year to improve the economic stability of rural areas. That money covered programs including wastewater treatment improvements, business and housing loans and guaranteed loans for construction of projects such as the Monroe Motor Speedway and upgrades to Morehouse Parish General Hospital.
Hawkins, who received the call from the White House on Thursday, left office June 30 after losing his re-election bid to former alderwoman and current mayor Betty Alford-Olive. He was Bastrop’s mayor for 20 years after serving 20 years in the Morehouse Parish Public School System.
He has served on numerous boards, including the Louisiana Housing and Community Development Advisory Task Force, the Louisiana Municipal Association and the National Conference of Black Mayors. He has a bachelor’s degree from Grambling State University and a master’s degree in education from Northeast Louisiana University, now the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
“I’m looking forward to coming to work,” Hawkins said. “I’ll bring 50 plus years of living in rural America and addressing needs as a municipal public servant.”
Hawkins said he will make increasing “access” a priority - providing rural communities access to broadband communications, and making sure rural development programs are accessible to all those in need.
“One of my concerns is to be sure outreach is continued,” Hawkins said. “Sometimes people don’t realize what’s available and I want to make sure the funds are available to Louisiana and all districts are aware how to access them.”
Hawkins “will be an important advocate on behalf of rural communities throughout the state and help administer the valuable programs and services provided by the USDA that can enhance their economic success,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release.
Last year in the wake of hurricanes Ike and Gustav, Louisiana’s rural development office led the nation with its Guaranteed Rural Housing Program, guaranteeing 3,546 housing loans worth $443.7 million.
Hawkins said the program fills big need to assure lenders and encourage loans in rural areas.
“We have a severe shortage of affordable and decent housing in many areas of the state,” Hawkins said.
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., recommended Hawkins for the job in April, as well as John H. Broussard, of Lafayette, a business and cooperative programs director for the rural development office, and Sean M. Le Blanc, area director for the Amite area rural development office.
Since Barack Obama’s inauguration, Karen Nardini has been acting as interim state director of the agency.
Hawkins said he has spent the last two months, the longest time he has been unemployed, reflecting on his life in public service and hoping for another opportunity.
“The (selection) process was easy,” Hawkins said. “Now comes the hard part, and I hope for the support of the hardworking men and women of the agency. Hopefully I can stand on their shoulders and we can work together.”