County Commissioners Discuss Rural Broadband Opportunities, Future Of Senior Center
By Beth Milligan | May 27, 2021
Grand Traverse County commissioners held a study session Wednesday to discuss opportunities to increase rural broadband connectivity in the region, with former Michigan USDA Rural Development Director Jason Allen offering guidance on funding and organizational options for upgrades. Commissioners also discussed the status of the county’s future at the city-owned Senior Center on East Front Street.
Rural Broadband Connectivity
A recent survey of Grand Traverse County residents flagged affordable high-speed Internet access as an ongoing challenge in the region. Former Michigan USDA Rural Development Director Jason Allen told county commissioners Wednesday there are ways they can help address that problem, though acknowledged a potential challenge due to the county’s size. Federal funding for “rural” upgrades typically applies to counties with populations under 50,000, with Grand Traverse County nearly twice that size. However, the county could help individual entities – such as a township or utility – apply for grants for network improvements, and could also assist in convening a broadband authority.
Allen said high-speed Internet expansion typically occurs in rural areas by tagging onto either existing phone or electric networks, using the infrastructure and easements already in place to run fiber optic cables. Sometimes public utilities take on those projects themselves, while other times private companies manage fiber expansion. Allen pointed to the Traverse City Light & Power fiber broadband project as an example of the former. Taking on an expansion requires technical expertise, a revenue stream to cover access and easements, and a governance structure, he said. “The best option is to set up some sort of authority” similar to a downtown development authority (DDA) or a metro fire department, according to Allen.
Allen said commissioners could work to convene such an authority, with grant applications for funding then potentially submitted by specific townships or partners within the authority. He also said commissioners could help rural telephone companies – he cited examples on Old Mission Peninsula and in Kingsley – apply for a USDA ReConnect loan or grant to expand broadband access. The program provides funding to cover construction, improvement, and acquisition of facilities and equipment to bring broadband service to rural areas. “These are fairly straightforward types of grants,” Allen said.
Significant funding opportunities related to broadband are available through the federal American Rescue Plan passed this spring, including over $7 billion in the Emergency Connectivity Fund to reimburse schools and libraries for providing free broadband service to students and patrons and nearly $10 billion in the Homeowner Assistance Fund to help homeowners pay for utilities including Internet. Another $350 billion included in the American Rescue Plan for eligible state and local governments can be used for broadband upgrades as part of a list of approved infrastructure investments. In addition, the Emergency Broadband Benefit – an FCC program to help families struggling to afford Internet during the pandemic – provides a discount of up to $50 per month toward broadband service for eligible households. As part of the county’s exploration of funding opportunities for broadband expansion, county staff will contact Congressman Jack Bergman to request to be included in “findings, opportunities, or initiatives” of the Rural Broadband Advisory Committee of the Congressional First District, and will request U.S. Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow to provide Grand Traverse County with updates on opportunities associated with rural broadband.
Allen said it was crucial for Grand Traverse County to try and find ways to upgrade its Internet connectivity in order to stay competitive and relevant in the 21st century. “If we’re going to attract the next generation of entrepreneurs…a system has to be in place,” he said.
After negotiations between Grand Traverse County and City of Traverse City officials to put a millage proposal on the ballot to fund a new building at the Senior Center property fell apart last year, the future of senior programming at the East Front Street site is unclear.
The county’s agreement to use the city-owned building for senior programming expires at the end of this year, staff told commissioners in an update Wednesday. Staff are now exploring options including constructing a new building elsewhere to house the county's Senior Center Network offices, such as on county-owned land on LaFranier Road. That option could potentially allow the Commission on Aging and county Veterans Affairs offices to also relocate to the building, putting all of the county departments that provide senior services under one roof. In such a scenario, the county could still potentially use the city’s building on East Front Street as a “Traverse City outreach location” for senior programming, staff said, similar to outreach locations the county maintains in Fife Lake, Interlochen, Kingsley, and other communities.
However, any continued county use of the city Senior Center building beyond 2021 will require a new agreement with the city. Negotiations are complicated by Traverse City’s charter, which requires a public vote on certain uses of city parks like the Senior Center. City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht says the city can typically enter into management agreements – where outside groups like Grand Traverse County can use park property to provide public services – for up to 25 years. The county has already been at the Senior Center for 10 years, so a short-term renewal of the management agreement is possible for up to another 15 years. Beyond that point, the city would have to go to voters and get approval to continue allowing the county to use the building. If the city were to give the county a long-term lease – something county officials demanded last year as a condition of putting the millage for a new building on the ballot – that would also require a public vote.
County staff said they would continue to explore all options for senior programming, including continuing programming at the East Front Street location as well as evaluating potential new locations for offices and programming. The city is also exploring its options, with City Manager Marty Colburn including funding in his draft budget this year to go through a visioning process for the Senior Center property to explore potential uses for the site if the county leaves. County Commissioner Betsy Coffia said Wednesday she was hopeful the county and city could come to an agreement to continue offering senior programming at the East Front Street site, noting that seniors have overwhelmingly stated their preference for the property.
“They like that location, they want to keep coming to that location, and they want a better building,” she said. “They're asking us as government to get our act together and work together with our partners...to make that happen.”