George Boardman: Nevada County supervisors finally realize broadband is a key to economic development
Observations from the center stripe: Suggestion edition
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As if struck by a lightning bolt, the county Board of Supervisors has come to the profound realization that a robust broadband network is a key to growth of Nevada County’s backwater economy.
Equally surprising, they’re actually doing something about it by allocating $250,000 to connect the end user to local internet providers in unincorporated areas of the county, the so-called last mile that isn’t worth the expense to the telecom companies in rural areas like ours.
This action is being taken to spur “economic development,” a term used multiple times in a county press release heralding the expenditure. “Economic development” was a Priority B item on the supervisors’ list of things to do at the start of year, so that’s an improvement.
As the press release states: “As a cornerstone of the country’s economic development strategy, broadband is vital to the economic interest and health of the community. High speed broadband connections can have a positive impact by promoting the diversification of the economy, attracting and retaining high-wage businesses and companies, and increasing the long-term investment in information technology sectors.”
The supervisors couldn’t resist congratulating themselves for this newfound awareness. “I like the project because I think No. 1 it addresses the board priority on economic development and broadband,” said Supervisor Dan Miller. “Thank you,” chimed in Supervisor Heidi Hall. “I am so excited we are working to resolve this without waiting for the state or federal government to make progress …”
One of the reasons broadband has been so slow in coming is because county officials have waited for others to solve the problem. When it because clear that the major internet providers weren’t going to do the job, the supervisors counted on Spiral Internet to deliver high-speed communications. We know how well that has turned out.
“We’ve been talking about it since I’ve been here — 20 years,” Steve Monaghan, the county’s chief information officer, said at the supervisors’ meeting.
So now the county is going to pay Sierra Business Council $25,000 to see if $225,000 will entice telecom companies to do something they haven’t been willing to do. We don’t know yet how many hookups the money will buy — presumably, it won’t be cheap — or how we will select the lucky few to get broadband service. Call me a cynic, but I have a hunch each of the supervisorial districts will be getting hookups, even if they don’t make economic sense.
This is a case of a little money coming very late. It’s a reasonable amount of money for a pilot project, but it’s small compared to the over $980,000 the supervisors decided to spend “to make the Higgins Marketplace project possible,” in the words of the county. This may be a shopping center that’s even less necessary than the Dorsey Marketplace proposed for Grass Valley, even if Supervisor Ed Scofield believes Higgins will provide new jobs and might generate more sales tax revenue in his district.
So far Higgins, located south of Combie Road on Highway 49, has announced one tenant — the Holiday Market that currently anchors the Lake Center Plaza shopping center less than a mile away. The Lake Center currently has three vacant retail spaces and three of its five professional offices are available for lease. If Holiday leaves, half of the center will look like a ghost town.
But people don’t appear to be rushing to fill the space at Higgins either. Current listings of CBRE, the realtor hired to find tenants, still list the three other sites at the shopping center as available for lease. Whatever goes in there will likely generate more jobs with low pay and few if any fringe benefits. (If the employees don’t qualify for MediCal, they can always get their medical care at one of our free medical clinics.)
As an incentive to get the project build, the county agreed to wave $662,000 in road improvement fees if the biggest building was completed by Nov. 1 and the last building was finished by January 2021.
But that’s not going to happen. Last month, the supervisors extended the deadline a second time. Now, the first building at Higgins has to be done by January 2021. Completion dates for the other three structures were removed from the agreement. When the Combie Road widening project is completed, we may end up with a new and improved Higgins Road to nowhere.
The supervisors have apparently become sensitive to past criticism that they dropped the ball on broadband and have done little that’s meaningful in the way of economic development, even going so far as to rewrite history. If we are to believe the press release cited above:
“Nevada County has played a role in promoting local broadband coverage since 2000…,” citing among other things its support of the Economic Resource Council’s work with the Broadband Leadership Council. When was the last time you heard that mentioned?
Then there are the various resolutions passed and letters written in support of the technology. Now, after watching Spiral Internet flounder for 10 years, the supervisors are 100 percent behind the effort of Race Communications to deliver broadband service along the Highway 174 corridor.
The last mile project is a start. The supervisors now have a chance to write a history they can be proud of.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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