It was the type of statement city officials in Afton and Scandia and other exurban cities ringing the Twin Cities had hoped to make. But it came instead from the IT manager for Paul Bunyan Communications in the northern Minnesota town of Bemidji.
“I am really excited about this project and the positive impact it will have on people’s lives,” Steve Howard said after the state of Minnesota awarded $10 million worth of grants this month to help subsidize broadband in poorly served remote locations. “Students will have access to educational resources, employees will be able to work from home, seniors will be able to stay in their homes longer with telemedicine and a rural medical clinic will finally get the connectivity it has needed for years.”
Once again, affluent exurban areas came up empty.
Afton is the classic rural metro fringe community that has fought to retain an olden-days charm, battling subdivision proposals and modern additions such as cellphone towers. But other areas, such as Scandia, which are more receptive to growth, were also frustrated to have been left off the list once again.
“This was a surprise to everyone,” said Neil Soltis, city administrator in Scandia, at the northern edge of Washington County. “We felt we would get a grant. It’s disappointing to see that no one in the metro got anything.
“Quite frankly, it impacts growth,” he added, referring to the reaction of would-be residents when they learn that if they move to Scandia, they will be stuck in a time-warp when it comes to Internet speeds.
This year, the $10 million offer statewide was way oversubscribed, with dozens of applicants collectively seeking close to $30 million, and 15 winners.
Even so, Scandia wasn’t the only place going into the process feeling confident, apparently with encouragement from the state.
Afton City Council Member Stan Ross told residents in the city’s August newsletter that the High Speed Internet Committee he headed “has been told that Afton has a very good chance of being approved for the state grant.” In an interview, he said it would be “devastating” to come up empty.
And when asked weeks ago about a Plan B in case the application failed, Afton City Administrator Ron Moorse spoke of possibly not getting the full amount requested and of having to choose to put limited funds into parts of town most left out of Internet service.
But when funding decisions were announced Nov. 20, the recipients seemed almost deliberately to be as far from the metro as possible. They ranged from International Falls to Winona County, with another applicant covering 30,000 square miles in 20 southwest counties to help more than 3,000 farm-based businesses.
It’s an era when “agricultural data usage is exploding nationally,” said the state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), which decided the issue.
In Scandia, Soltis said he knows of no explanation that’s been extended to losing parties. Is all this creating bad feeling? he was asked.
“I’m sure it has,” he said.
Dan Nelson, the Sioux Falls, S.D.-based director of governmental affairs for Midcontinent Communications, was more sanguine after losing two of three bids for money, including one in the northeast suburbs. The winner was in International Falls.
“We have not discussed it with the state,” he said, “but last year after being unsuccessful we spoke to them at length about the pluses and minuses and were surprised and pleased to have more success this time.”