County board of commissioners to invest CARES Act funds in broadband

As a response to the growing needs of Greene County residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Greene County Board of Commissioners will be investing money from the CARES Act in expanding broadband in the county.

Expanding broadband has been a priority for the board for many years, according to Blair Zimmerman, secretary of the board. Zimmerman believes the funds come at an important time for education in the county.

“Because of the pandemic, we are doing a lot of teaching at home versus in the classroom,” Zimmerman said. “Not having broadband, that’s almost a no-brainer. It’s so important to have that now.”

Mike Belding, chairman of the board, said that improving broadband in the county is long overdue.

“Greene County has been struggling with broadband availability since the internet became a valuable tool for information, communications and business applications,” Belding said. “Although many headlines have made promises and claimed progress of broadband improvements over time, there have been limited increases in capabilities and never a comprehensive, effective plan established.”

Belding explained that the board began their planning in early January with a feasibility study.

“Examination of accumulated data will provide an opportunity to apply the most effective technology in the most efficient manner,” Belding said. “Increasing broadband availability to the largest population of users.”

Belding said the commissioners are considering either new services or upgrades in and around Brave, Graysville, Rogersville and Waynesburg. According to Belding, this would increase services in 35% of the county geographically by 2021. Belding also said plans to increase services in Monongahela, Dunkard and Perry Townships will bring 50% of municipalities improved broadband in the near future.

“I think everyone realizes broadband availability and capability is a requirement in order to be competitive in our information and data driven world,” Belding said. “Especially now, amid a pandemic when businesses are encouraged to increase telecommuting opportunities and families are wrestling with decisions between traditional schooling, home schooling or cyber schooling. Reliable internet service has never been more important.”

For the most rural areas of the county, Belding said the county has applied for an additional $5 million in funds through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) in order to continue broadband improvements.

“We don’t know when another COVID is going to hit, or what is going to happen to not only our state, but across the country,” Zimmerman said. “So it’s of the utmost importance to expand. But it isn’t easy, and what makes it hard is money.”

In addition to expanding broadband, the board is also focused on helping small businesses through the pandemic.

“Our growing concerns are the survival of our small businesses and nonprofits,” Belding said. “There are estimates that a significant number of our ‘mom and pop’ stores and restaurants will not reopen or will continue to be non-profitable under the current restrictions.”

Zimmerman said the board has been working non-stop to maximize resources for the county to aid in recovery.

“We are doing everything in our power to work with our state rep, our state senator, the federal government, lobbyists. We are reaching out for every opportunity,” Zimmerman said. “The only good thing out of this was there were a lot of funds made available.”

Belding said the board wants to assist the county in its efforts to adapt to the pandemic and move forward.

“Our schools, elderly care, nursing homes and other organizations are managed and regulated by the state, but the county stands ready to support in any way possible,” Belding said. “We really want to get our community, and county as a whole, back on its feet, functioning and moving forward toward a successful, safe future.”