Another $25.4 million pool of federal coronavirus relief funds is available for broadband infrastructure, and Crow Wing County wants in.
The one-time funding opportunity made possible by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act targets low- to moderate-income communities to enhance internet access in support of activities such as telework, telemedicine, distance learning and more.
Kristi Westbrock, CEO of CTC telecommunications company, asked the county board Tuesday, May 25, to apply for the grant with the intent of passing it on to the Baxter company. The project proposed by CTC would cover broadband installation in an area to the north and northwest of Crosby-Ironton, including Cuyuna, Trommald and Wolford Township, as well as a portion of Irondale Township to the south. If awarded, work would take place this summer. The cities of Crosby and Ironton would not be included, Westbrock said, because those constituents are considered served by broadband.
A total of 919 homes or businesses are located within the project area, and 492 of those are currently unserved, Westbrock said. It just meets the requirement for at least 51% of the population with low or moderate income, sitting at 51.86%. Westbrock proposed the county seek $5 million in the grant application, the maximum award allowed and an amount that would almost cover the projected cost.
Westbrock noted broadband equipment is in high demand, but CTC overstocked its inventory for this summer in anticipation of potential grant awards from relief funds.
“If we did get any of these projects … we’d be able to deploy immediately,” she said.
This wouldn’t be the first time Crow Wing County partnered with CTC on broadband projects. In 2020, the county set aside a $1.5 million portion of its direct CARES Act funding to facilitate three separate broadband builds. At the time, it appeared to be somewhat uncharted territory to apply coronavirus relief funds toward this infrastructure.
“Thank you so much for your foresight on the last projects we worked on through the CARES fund,” Westbrock said. “They turned out to be a wonderful success with our take rates extremely high. … We heard a lot from seniors being able to do their appointments in their home and kids with education.”
The three broadband expansion projects supported by county-appropriated funds were for Camp Vanasek in Baxter and the surrounding area, an area surrounding Borden Lake including the township halls of Bay Lake and Garrison, and a corridor along County Highway 13 in Lake Edward Township. CTC also received funding to cover the cost of providing Wi-Fi access points throughout the community to aid in distance learning efforts and COVID-related broadband installations completed earlier that spring.
“I think this is a great project,” Chairman Steve Barrows said Tuesday about CTC’s latest proposal. “ … The last experience we had was terrific with your company.”
Commissioner Paul Koering joked Barrows stole his thunder with the comment.
“Thanks to you and all your staff,” Koering said. “This last little round of work that you did helped out some of my constituents down in southern Crow Wing County, and they appreciated it. I know they appreciated it because I heard from them.”