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The Times 

County awards $90,000 for Broadband

 

December 30, 2021



DAYTON—Support for the Port of Columbia’s broadband infrastructure project is crucial to prividng high speed, reliable, up to date internet to the residents of Dayton and Columbia County.

Anne Walsh, speaking on behalf of the Dayton Chamber of Commerce, spoke at a December 14 meeting, encouraging the commissioners to support the project, which is being overseen by the Port of Columbia. The total cost of the project totals $2.5 million, and could provide reliable, high speed internet to more than 1,200 homes and businesses in Dayton. The Port has a $2 million grant from CERB, with $500,000 required as local matching contribution. The project has received additional grant funds to extend the project out to Huntsville, nearly to the county line, contingent on the required match funds being secured.

The Port of Columbia would not provide internet service, but would build and maintain broadband infrastructure for local providers to use for their customers.

To date, the Port of Columbia has committed $20,000, and received $335,000 from the City of Dayton, $20,000 from Sherwood Trust, $15,000 Warren Community Fund, $13,500 from Dayton-Columbia County Fund, totalling $403,500.

“They are short $96,500, to make this $2.5 million project go forward for our citizens,” Walsh said. “The Chamber is here because we feel really strongly that it is important for our existing residents to have this service, and to also draw new businesses, and new people, to our community.”

Walsh stressed that the existing businesses need the reliable internet in order to expand and offer services online.

“We are a small, rural community. For us to survive, especially when people are shopping online and in other places, our local businesses need to expand by offering their services on the internet, especially in a time where many people are just shopping online,” she explained.

She referenced the owner of Carloyn’s Cafe, who has successfully sold and shipped her cinnamon rolls all over the country, and explained that other businesses could follow her lead if they had the broadband capacity.

“When a new business looks to relocate, or people that are working remotely, what are they going to ask? They want to know what the schools are like, and if there is a rural hospital. They also ask ‘do you have high-speed internet?’ It’s one of the key things new businesses or remote workers will look for when looking for a new home in a rural community,” Walsh said.

Walsh also pointed out that the county’s birthrate is lower than the death rate, meaning that the county was shrinking. She noted that the lack of future generations means that the county will not be able to maintain tax needs, and will heavily impact the schools, and the services that they will be able to offer.

“Kids who live here now- if they get a remote job and can work from home, they won’t stay if they don’t have the high-speed internet that they need, and they will go elsewhere,” Walsh said.

She spoke on her personal experiences with her job, sharing how frustrating it is trying to work with an unreliable, slow internet connection that she experiences in the area.

Another local business owner, Bo Stevenson, who owns a screen printing and graphic design business, and operates a cafe with his partner, Alicia Walker, on Main Street, spoke in support of the project. He said that the internet connection gets so bad that they are unable to process transactions. He shared that it can take up to 15 minutes to upload files at home, whereas in Walla Walla, it takes him a mere couple of seconds.

Vicki Zoller, tuning in online, said that she is in the same boat as Stevenson. Zoller, who often uploads art, photos, and other large files, said that she has had to wait overnight for files to upload. She also spoke about telehealth, and how reliable internet is critical to keeping up with appointments for better healthcare.

“For our healthcare, it’s something for the future,” Zoller said. “When we think about building something like this in a rural community, it isn’t just about today. These comments, that it’s a want and not a need, is us failing to see farther down the road. It’s us failing to provide something for the future. I think that it is the responsibility of our community leaders to think ahead.”

Sean Thurston, from Elk Drug, spoke on healthcare, focusing on aging and long term care and on the telehealth models that would allow aging individuals to receive healthcare while staying home.

He added that having high speed internet at his place of work has allowed the pharmacy to partner with Providence St. Mary and Garfield County.

Chelsey Eaton, who works at Columbia County Public Health, spoke as well. The Eaton’s opted to live in Pomeroy and commute daily, because of the poor internet connection in Dayton.

“Being a young family, it kind of deterred us from moving to Dayton,” she said, of the internet connection.

Zoller asked the commissioners to explain what is holding up the process, after the matched request had been ‘kicked down the road’ for several months.

Commissioner Ryan Rundell explained that there is currently a project related to the HVAC system at the courthouse. The commissioners have been waiting for final numbers on that project before committing money anywhere else. The county has received a historical building grant for the HVAC project, but it may cost more than the grant will cover.

Rundell said that the broadband project is worth doing, and whether the county could cover the full ask amount, or just give part of it, the county should provide some money.

In a later discussion amongst the commissioners, Commissioner Charles Amerein said there were a lot of other needs that should be addressed before the internet, including the city wastewater treatment plant. Commissioner Hall reminded him that the county could not influence or change what the City of Dayton needs.

“These are people that, their idea of what need versus a want is, in my mind, a little bit skewed,” he said.

Commissioner Hall stated that the county cannot just close their eyes and ignore the issue.

“We already heard that they expanded down to Huntsville, and that was without any action on our part,” Amerein said. “Eventually, if it is important enough to business, business will come here on its own without us having to pay. This is, in essence, again, a public subsidy for private profit. We will be donating county money to build infrastructure for private business to come in. They will still be selling it to a private business. They will still be making a profit.”

“Which is exactly what happens when you build a road,” Hall reminded him. “The UPS guy drives on the road to make deliveries and makes a profit. You drive down it to get back and forth to your house.”

Hall said that he would like to see the internet providers put something into the match funds, but reiterated that the county should provide some funds, regardless.

Amerein remained adamant that the county did not need the broadband project to continue, and that substandard internet capability is not what was holding the county back. He said that he had concerns about becoming a zoomtown.

“There are also concerns about becoming a ghost town,” Hall said.

Amerein said that because the government (state, county and local) is the biggest employer in the county, and with Dayton being the county seat, there wasn’t really a concern of the town going away.

“Ten minutes ago, we were talking about affording deputies,” Hall said. “We might be one of the biggest employers, but we are not future-proof.”

Rundell said the healthcare benefits were incredibly beneficial, as many providers are utilizing telehealth options. He added that if all of the surrounding towns have the internet, and Dayton does not, he saw businesses and residents choosing towns that had the internet option over a town that did not.

“Time and history move past places that are willing to stay up with the times,” Rundell said. “There are lots of towns around that used to be thriving, and used to be nice places to live, that are now just white spots in the world.”

Amerein referenced the changes in California over the past 40 years, and said that if the commissioners don’t think carefully about changes, they could end up with another version of California.

Amerein stood firm that improved access to the internet would not increase business in the area, despite hearing from business owners and operators who expressed frustration with slow transactions and upload speeds. He said broadband would change the nature of the county more than supporters of the project realized.

“I am a refugee. I tell people that all of the time. I am a refugee from a place that has been colonized. Something I work very hard to see not happen again,” Amerein said. “I can make my arguments, but you guys can vote the way you want to vote.”

He said that he is only echoing the concerns that have been voiced to him but recognized that the other commissioners were doing the same.

The Columbia County Commissioners voted 2-1 to award $90,000 to the Port of Columbia for the broadband infrastructure at the December 20 meeting. Commissioners Hall, Rundell, voted in favor, with Amerein against.

 

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