Following an emotional meeting Nov. 8, the Grant County Court voted 2-1 to move forward with a proposal to join with the city of John Day in forming the Grant County Digital Coalition and providing broadband internet access to local residents.
Commissioner Jim Hamsher, who opposed the court’s vote for consensus, had concerns about language in an agreement binding the county to the coalition and the need for a market analysis.
John Day City Manager Nick Green, who will bring the agreement back to the court at their next meeting, said he hadn’t conducted a market analysis but expected the task force working on the proposal would do so in the future.
Green said bringing broadband to the John Day area was part of the city’s strategy for growth. Limitations to download and especially upload speeds in the area stops many businesses from moving here and hampers economic development, a point emphasized by Scott Fairley, who came from the Business Oregon office in Pendleton to support the proposal.
“The issues and problems you’re hearing now will only get worse in the future,” Fairley told the court. “Competition in the future will grow more difficult.”
In an emotional plea to the court, Grant County Economic Development Coordinator Sally Bartlett said the county needed to embrace the 21st century.
“It hurts me to see Grant County struggle because people can’t agree,” she said. “We’re so divided and can’t move forward.”
Bartlett noted that the $1.8 million in state funding that John Day will receive for construction of a high-capacity fiber cable from Burns to John Day could be doubled by obtaining other grants and funding.
Grant County Judge Scott Myers said he spoke with numerous people who visited Grant County during the eclipse and had expressed interest in moving to the area. But they won’t come here if high-speed internet access is not available, he said.
Grant School District No. 3 Superintendent Curt Shelley spoke about the need for students to be provided with as many opportunities as possible to get ahead. He said his two children needed to take turns on the internet when doing their homework at their home because of limited internet access. Students in Grant County should be able to compete on a level playing field with towns like Sandy, Oregon, or Ammon, Idaho, which offer high-speed internet access.
In some rural areas, internet access is nearly nonexistent. Dan Becker, who owns a local computer repair business, said many of his customers want better internet access. He said he often brings computers back to his shop in town to service them because internet access is so bad in some areas — including neighborhoods not far from the courthouse.
“It would be a great economic benefit to bring broadband to the area,” Becker said.
Hamsher, who is also the mayor of Prairie City, noted that residents of Prairie City and Mt. Vernon were fortunate that Oregon Telephone Co. ran an expensive fiber network through their communities while many areas in the county had no service.
“That’s one of the drawbacks of living in the outskirts,” he said, along with the costs of providing water, roads and other infrastructure.
That comment drew a response from several people. Gordon Larson, who lives on a ranch property south of Canyon City, said he and his neighbors were frustrated by their inability to get internet service from Ortelco or CenturyLink. He told the Eagle that he was taken aback by Hamsher’s comment and that people move here for the rural lifestyle.
Chantal DesJardin told the court she lives in Prairie City now and enjoys quality internet access, but she would like to live in a rural place like Pine Creek, where she grew up. She said it was the court’s obligation to support broadband in Grant County.
“I should not be forced to live in a metropolis,” she said. “It’s very unfair.”
Judy Kerr agreed that having broadband access in Grant County “would be awesome,” but she questioned if the local economy could support such a program, noting that both Sandy and Ammon had stronger economies. When she asked how many people in the room would sign up for the proposed network, most raised their hands.
Myers noted that clear evidence of the importance of broadband could be found in Ammon — development occurred on the side of a street where broadband was available but not on the other.
The Canyon City City Council informed the city’s residents in its November newsletter that it had decided not to join the coalition. The council cited lack of information about costs and the current availability of Ortelco fiber-optic service in the community.
Green told the Eagle that the Grant County Internet Task Force working on the proposal had not budgeted a specific cost for Canyon City “because they are already along the proposed route to get to John Day.”