NWEcon supports foothills broadband project

By Nancy Jordan, executive director of the Northwest Economic Council — Whatcom County

Land lines and dial-up internet access have quickly become mere recollections as we’ve grown accustomed to the use of cell phones and high-speed internet access. What many have come to take for granted has yet to become a reality for more than 7,000 residents in the Mt. Baker Foothills community. This community has stressed their need for these services for a number of years and has continually been denied due to their rural location.

Linda Dorsett is a resident of this community and chair of the Communications Task Force that hopes to bring broadband and cell phone service to the area. Her patience is frequently tested as she faces these challenges on a daily basis.

“It’s so important in this day and age to have cell phone service and Internet access because you will economically die if you don’t. Our only Internet option is dial-up. My husband is trying to teach classes online and we’re trying to run a business out of our home,” Dorsett said.

Dorsett’s opinion, along with many others in the Mt. Baker Foothills community is supported by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The ARRA identified broadband as an important part of economic and community development when it appropriated $7.2 billion in funding to expand broadband infrastructure across the nation. More than 2,200 applications were received at the federal level and governors were given an opportunity to review and prioritize applicants that would impact  their state. Gov. Chris Gregoire identified her prioritized list of applicants to receive funding with the understanding that these projects will help stimulate local economies and create jobs.

Like Gov. Gregoire, Russ Angus, a member of the Visitor Center Committee understands access to these methods of communication are a critical component to the development and success of any community.

“If every other public school in the state has access to broadband and kids here are disconnected and can’t do their assignments because they don’t have the Internet, that’s an issue. The sheriff is concerned about safety issues and there are concerns with growth and employment too as people have a difficult time starting small businesses here,” Angus said.

Part of the Northwest Economic Council’s mission is to provide economic development services for the region. As the designated Associate Development Organization (ADO), defined by the state as the lead economic development agency for our county, the Northwest Economic Council has actively supported the Mt. Baker Foothills community as they’ve explored expanding their service options. Every county in Washington state has ADO representation, yet most people don’t know what that designation is, which organization holds it or how it benefits businesses and the health of the local economy. ADOs are the point of entry for state leadership on economic development issues and are designed to strengthen and support the counties they represent.

The Northwest Economic Council’s unique position as the ADO for our area assisted the Mt. Baker Foothills community in their efforts.

“They helped us apply for a grant that looked at the economic viability in the foothills and how broadband services would improve the employment rate as well as create new jobs,” Angus said.

This communications feasibility study took place in 2007 and identified facilities, equipment, resources, action steps and public/private entities needed to install high-speed Internet and cell phone coverage in the area. This study found that a combination of technologies could be deployed to provide high-speed Internet coverage and cellular service to the entire Mt. Baker Foothills area.

More importantly, the feasibility study initiated a much larger effort; it enabled the community to actively participate in advocating for these services. The Mt. Baker Foothills community received two proposals for increasing service to their area. One of the two was presented by the Washington Rural Broadband Cooperative (WA-RBC). This group applied for the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service Broadband Initiatives Program (USDA/RUS BIP) funding, which creates loans and grants for broadband infrastructure projects in rural areas. The Northwest Economic Council recently submitted a letter of support for the WA-RBC project knowing that if the community receives this funding, they will have access to 10 gigabytes per second.

“This is something that was beyond any of our wildest hopes and dreams. Think back to the days before electricity was everywhere. This is a similar effort. The WA-RBC sees the internet as a public utility that everyone should have a right to,” Dorsett said.

The Northwest Economic Council is thankful for the relationships and partners they work with throughout the region. These relationships provide them with a network of resources that contribute to economic vitality and enable them to help communities like the Mt. Baker Foothills area. Gary Gehling is a member of the Northwest Economic Council’s board and he is also chairman of the Foothills Community Development Association. Gehling appreciates the free services members receive.

“They provide great opportunities for networking and support. Often, small businesses have difficulties getting their voices heard and the Northwest Economic Council creates synergies – things that work for both agencies – they provide support and help connect you with the resources and people needed to get the job done,” Gehling said.

Carole MacDonald, president of the Mt. Baker Foothills Chamber of Commerce, appreciates the support of the Northwest Economic Council, too.

“The Northwest Economic Council has really given us exposure. When you have a project like this that not a whole lot of people are interested in because of your location you really need people out there drumming the bushes on behalf of the project,” MacDonald said.

Additional services include: free, confidential business counseling; assistance to businesses interested in relocating to Whatcom County; and access to information and data for the Whatcom region.

“If you need a resource, the Northwest Economic Council is very likely to know where it is and how to connect you with it; they know everything and everybody. We are very grateful for their presence and we know we couldn’t be this far if it wasn’t for their continued support. Right now, we’re right on the edge of hoping for a major breakthrough,” Dorsett said.

Nancy Jordan is the executive director for the Northwest Economic Council – Whatcom County, previously known as the Bellingham Whatcom Economic Development Council. The Northwest Economic Council is a private non-profit that provides economic development services for the region, supports local business retention and expansion, serves as the point of contact for relocating businesses and develops long-term economic strategies. Please see  www.nwecon.org for more information.

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