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October 28, 2021

Commissioners hear broadband update, endorse Core Trail

Project will mark out a half-mile path on downtown sidewalks

At their March 9th meeting, the Alexander County Commissioners received an update on the broadband internet pilot program.

Alan Fitzpatrick, CEO of Open Broadband LLC, said the company has received 943 signups via their website, and displayed a map which showed that people from all areas of Alexander County have expressed an interest in Open Broadband’s service.

He said the first installation in Alexander County occurred in November 2019, with approximately 30 customers to date and an additional 4-6 customers each week. The most recent installations have occurred in the Little River Church Road area following the installation of a hub at a poultry farm, which allows them to rebroadcast the internet signal from the main hub atop Linney’s Mountain.

The process of becoming an Open Broadband customer is online registration, a signal check at the home or business, and if the signal is adequate, then installation of equipment, and connecting to the network.

Fitzpatrick said that Open Broadband’s contract runs from June 2019 to May 2020.

“Many of those who are on our signup list are outside the pilot program area,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is just a pilot program so it’s not a ‘silver bullet’ to get internet to everyone. It has a limited scope.”

The company’s next steps are to expand to Hiddenite and Stony Point with the installation of a hub atop a water tower at Craftmaster Furniture. As part of the Open Broadband contract, service will also be provided to Rocky Face Mountain Recreational Area and nearby homes.

He said the company has also gained permission from EnergyUnited to install hubs on power poles.

“We plan to increase the pace of installations to get more customers on our network,” Fitzpatrick said. “We will give a final report in May.”

Commission Chairman Ryan Mayberry asked if Linney’s Mountain was the only primary hub. Fitzpatrick said the pilot program only included one core site, but they could do more with additional funding.

Fitzpatrick said the county could apply for the NC Department of Information Technology’s Broadband Infrastructure Office’s GREAT (Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology) grant in the 2021 grant cycle, which will then allow both tier 1 and tier 2 counties to apply. County Manager Rick French said there will be an opportunity to apply for an economic development grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation later this year.

“We must invest more in the future to expand broadband in Alexander County,” Mayberry stated. “Broadband internet isn’t just a want, it’s a need, so we will continue working on ways to improve internet access for our citizens and businesses.”

Fitzpatrick said that Alexander County has been one of his favorite counties in which to work.

The pilot program with Open Broadband dates back a couple of years, with the formation of a broadband committee and a feasibility study. In early 2019, the Alexander County EDC received a $50,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to help fund the pilot program. The EDC then issued a request for proposals in March to find an Internet Service Provider (ISP) with the best plan, qualifications, and price point. Upon review of the proposals, the EDC Board of Directors approved a contract with Open Broadband to conduct the pilot program. Per the contract, Open Broadband provided a $50,000 match to the ARC grant, and Alexander County Government contributed $36,470 to the project.

In other business:

• Commissioners voted to endorse the Taylorsville Business Association’s Core Trail proposal, which is the development of a half-mile walking loop in downtown Taylorsville. Meredith Schrum Lerm, Chairperson for the TBA’s Design & Beautification Committee, presented information about the core trail proposal. She said the loop will begin on the southeast corner of the Alexander County Services Center with a barn-quilt map on the building; however, users can begin at any point on the trail. A series of 20 route markers will be painted on the sidewalks to denote the trail. Lerm said the core trail will be a fun downtown activity for any skill level.

• Doug Gillispie, Alexander County Director of Public Services, presented an update on the flooding that occurred February 5-7. He said that a state of emergency was declared. Emergency personnel performed two swift-water rescues, helped evacuate people from Hiddenite Family Campground, and set up an emergency shelter. Gillispie said the NC Department of Transportation estimated damages to roads at approximately $14.5 million, so there is a possibility of receiving some FEMA funds.

• Commissioners approved a resolution authorizing Alexander County’s participation in the North Carolina Health Insurance Risk Pool for a period of one year. The pool allows the county to continue to use Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, which is the current provider. In the pool, rates can increase by only three percent with reduced deductibles.

• During the public comment period, Craig McLeod encouraged commissioners to enforce the county’s minimum housing code. McLeod said that he owns 110 acres on Ridley Ranch Road with plans to spend $2 million to develop his property; however, neighboring properties are in violation of the county’s ordinances and he would like the issues to be resolved. Later in the meeting, County Manager Rick French stated that staff has met with the families and are working to clean up the properties.

• Kathy Ballard of the Guardian ad Litem program also spoke during the public comment period. She said the program has a need for eight (8) volunteers in Alexander County. She also invited the public to a child abuse awareness event on April 9 from 12:00 to 1:30 p.m. at the Alexander County Courthouse.

• Commissioner Jeff Peal requested that the county manager and staff investigate the re-establishment of a substance abuse task force.

Following the regular meeting, commissioners then convened a meeting of the Alexander County Consolidated Human Services Board.

It was noted that Vaya Health is inviting the public to a free screening of “Suicide: The Ripple Effect” on March 25 at 6:00 p.m. at the Alexander Central Auditorium.

Billie Walker, Assistant Director of the Alexander County Health Department, presented an update on COVID-19, also known as Coronavirus. She encourages the public to remain calm. Walker said various strains of Coronavirus have been around for a long time, but this new strain that started in China is stronger and affects the respiratory system. As of 4:00 p.m. on March 9, the Centers for Disease Control had reported 423 cases in the United States with 19 deaths. Of those 19 deaths, 18 were from a nursing home in Washington State. The symptoms are fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Walker encourages the public to follow the following steps: avoid exposure and stay home if you are sick; cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze; wash your hands; avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes; avoid close, personal contact, and clean/disinfect regularly. She said there is no vaccine yet, but it is a work in progress. People who are most at risk include those who have a compromised immune system, are 65+ years old, and/or have health problems.

Leeanne Whisnant, Alexander County Consolidated Human Services Director, reported that interviews for Assistant Director of Social Services have been completed and she hopes to present a candidate to the board in the near future. She also said that a foster parenting class in February was the largest in recent history. DSS also received an increase of $11,386 in block grant funds for Adult Protective Services.

The Alexander County Board of Commissioners typically meets on the first Monday of each month at 6:00 p.m. in room #103 at the CVCC Alexander Center for Education. The next meeting is Monday, April 6. Meetings are recorded, and can be viewed on the county’s Government Channel on Spectrum channel 192 or on the county’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/alexandercountync. Meeting agendas, minutes, videos, and more are available on the county’s website at www.alexandercountync.gov/commissioners.

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