Lakes area county commissioners told U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar expansion of broadband internet access is key to economic success for both current and future residents.

Board members from Aitkin, Crow Wing, Morrison and Lake of the Woods counties participated in a teleconference with the Minnesota Democrat Wednesday, April 7, billed as an opportunity to share short- and long-term pandemic recovery priorities as well as infrastructure needs. Klobuchar — who touted President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan alongside her own Senate proposal to invest $94 billion in expanding broadband in underserved communities — said she wants to ensure the needs of rural populations are reflected in whatever ends up on the president’s desk. She said providing for local governments was a priority of hers in the recently passed American Rescue Plan as well.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Amy Klobuchar

“We know that the unexpected costs, drops in revenue have hurt local government, and we worked really hard to make sure that was included in this last package,” Klobuchar said. “And I particularly worked hard to make sure that the money would also help smaller governmental units, so it wasn’t just some kind of metro help.”

Broadband

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While citing the need to invest in road and bridge improvements throughout the nation, Klobuchar focused on gaps in high-speed internet coverage and the impact this has on Minnesota households — impacts the pandemic brought to the fore. The broadband bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. James Clyburn in the House of Representatives, would address connectivity deserts that remain prevalent in rural Minnesota, she said.

“We’re leading that bill, which would really get us to 100% coverage on broadband if we were to actually put the money out that we should. And in Minnesota — despite our good work, and there’s been some really good work going on across our state — we’re still at 16% of households lacking access to high-speed. They may have access, but they don’t have high speed,” Klobuchar said.

In three of the four participating counties, high-speed coverage is even more sparse, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Nearly half of households in Aitkin and Lake of the Woods counties do not have access to at least 25 Mbps of download speeds — 42% in Lake of the Woods and 40% in Aitkin. In Morrison County, 23% of households are underserved. Only Crow Wing County is better than the state average, with 11% of households lacking a high-speed connection.

“So this would make a really big deal for us to be able to get to extreme rural areas when it comes to broadband, and that’s what this bill does. So I’m actually very excited about the potential we have to finally move,” Klobuchar said. “ … I just want to make sure that it gets to … what we call remote options, and that we make sure that we are including you in this.”

Crow Wing County Commissioner Steve Barrows said high-speed internet access is critical for small businesses as well as students participating in distance learning. It’s also a selling point, he said, as more people no longer tethered to a physical desk space move to the area.

Crow Wing County Commissioner Steve Barrows. 2021 submitted photo
Crow Wing County Commissioner Steve Barrows. 2021 submitted photo

“We’ve had a lot of people moving up to our area in Crow Wing from the Twin Cities. … We’ve seen a lot of permits pulled for building new homes and that,” Barrows said. “And so it’s going to be important that the investment in broadband, at whatever level, continues. And I know that we will be using some of our rescue plan dollars to invest in that endeavor also.”

Morrison County Commissioner Jeff Jelinski echoed some of Barrows’ sentiments, noting he foresees virtual meetings and schooling will remain prominent even post-pandemic.

“I’m going to be one of the guys that’s going to climb on that internet train, and I’m going to support and continue to support building a strong, reliable and inexpensive broadband system,” Jelinski said. “ … We must have a robust internet highway. As a former 911 communication supervisor, as an emergency manager in my old life, I’ve been in meeting after meeting and heard promise and promise over and over and over: ‘Don’t worry, the internet is coming,’ ‘don’t worry, broadband is coming,’ ‘don’t worry, cyber is coming.’

Morrison County Commissioner Jeffrey Jelinski. 2021 submitted photo
Morrison County Commissioner Jeffrey Jelinski. 2021 submitted photo

“Still we have issues of little or no internet connectivity. I just have to be honest, the time is now. We have electricity in Morrison County, we have electricity in Minnesota. Why do we not have internet connections that are off the grid? We’re in Minnesota, come on, let’s get this thing built.”

Jelinski also relayed the story of a friend whose daughter is considering a move back to the area from Colorado with the option to now work remotely.

“One of her priorities, however, is she either is going to have strong internet at her new residence, wherever that might be, or she’s going to stay in Colorado,” Jelinski said. “I want to bring her home.”

Housing

In addition to broadband considerations, commissioners broached workforce housing shortages in the region as well.

“We just need housing,” said Aitkin County Commissioner Anne Marcotte. “I think the cost of plywood at $37 a sheet is just shutting down any private businesses from deciding to expand.”

Aitkin County Commissioner Anne Marcotte. 2021 submitted photo
Aitkin County Commissioner Anne Marcotte. 2021 submitted photo

Klobuchar said skyrocketing costs of timber products is due in part to tariffs between the U.S. and Canada and it’s affecting the building of all housing, particularly multiple housing units.

“In the presidential campaign — which I didn’t win, but oh well — I put out a big plan on housing and had a big emphasis on rural housing, how important it is. Because you just can’t keep the jobs if you don’t have housing,” the senator said. “You know, this next plan, there is some money in it for housing, but it’s a big focus on infrastructure. But then there’s going to be another one on sort of, more in human infrastructure, and I think we can make a strong pitch for having the major housing funding in there.”

Mineral exploration

Marcotte also made an appeal to Klobuchar to back mineral exploration in the region in light of Biden’s executive order aimed at securing the country’s critical supply chains. She said as the chair of Northern Counties Land Use Coordinating Board, there’s interest in further discussion of how the order might give a boost to domestic extraction for copper, nickel, gold, cobalt and other minerals and precious metals.

“I think that this gives us an opportunity to reframe the dialogue, because you know, when you take out the Twin Metals and the Polymet projects, those are so controversial, … so taking those out, I’m just wondering what your opinion is on this new executive order,” Marcotte said. “I know that you’re a daughter from the Iron Range and a constant champion of our environmental stewardship and essential leadership. … It’s such an opportunity for small counties like Aitkin to have Kennecott in our area. And I think that, you know, we just have been dealing with so many outside environmental groups that have been trying to shut down all of the expansion.”

Klobuchar said she’d be interested to see the results of the exploration and to have conversations about how Biden’s order affects all of Minnesota, not just parts of the state.

“Obviously anything we do has to be safe, but there is some opportunities with supplies and things like that,” Klobuchar said, noting she’d direct her staff to look into the issue further and find ways to work with the land use board.

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at twitter.com/DispatchChelsey.