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MEC presses forward with fiber optic broadband

SoVaNow.com / August 14, 2019




The Mecklenburg CountyBoard of Supervisors received an update Monday on Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative’s efforts to bring ultra-high speed broadband to residents in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties, agreeing to partner with the cooperative on a request for grant funding from the state.

Through its subsidiary, EMPOWER Broadband, MEC hopes to secure $200,000 from the Virginia Telecommunications Initiative (VATI) grant program, which is administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development.

Speaking to supervisors at their monthly meeting in Boydton, MEC Vice President of Member and Energy Services David Lipscomb said EMPOWER is on target to meet a 2020 deadline to install 135 miles of fiber optic cable across the cooperative’s 14-county service area in Virginia and North Carolina. The cooperative is building a fiber optic cable network to connect its electrical system assets, and offering fiber connections to home and business customers that lie in proximity to the infrastructure.

MEC is continuing to look for funding for the project, and the State of Virginia has set aside $19 million in VATI money to dole out over the next several months for high-speed internet projects. MEC is hoping to tap into these funds, but it needs a public sector partner, Lipscomb explained.

Mecklenburg County will not be asked to earmark any money for the grant request and will not be held responsible for repaying the funds if MEC fails to meet its obligations under the terms of the VATI grant.

In 2017, Mecklenburg County was the public partner for MEC when the cooperative sought and received $2.6 million in grant money from the Virginia Tobacco Commission to begin deploying cable across its service area. That grant covered the cost of one half of MEC’s $5.2 million fiber-to-the-premises pilot project, which to date has included the installation of 45 miles of cable and 46 homes now receiving 50 mbps broadband service. Most of these subscribers live along Highway 92 west of Chase City.

The additional $200,000 will cover half of the cost of connecting another 50 homes along Highway 903 near the Beachwood Subdivision in Bracey to MEC’s existing broadband backbone.

To date the company has not received any of the highly competitive VATI funds, according to Lipscomb. “We believe we have a highly competitive request,” he said, adding that VATI will cover 80 percent of the cost of any approved broadband project, but MEC is only seeking 50 percent of their project costs.

Existing MEC electric customers curious about whether the cooperative can provide broadband service can visit EmpowerMEC.net to see if their home is within 1,000 feet of the existing fiber backbone — the criteria set by MEC for broadband service.

When asked by Chairman Glenn Barbour if MEC is willing to provide broadband service to customers living around Lake Gaston whose homes are more than 1,000 feet from the cable backbone, Lipscomb replied, “The cooperative is not in business to make money. Our objective is to serve customers, so we will build [install cable service] to those as we can get [enough customers to cover the cost]. So, it is on our radar.”

Lipscomb estimated that, when completed, MEC will have an $80 million investment in its EMPOWER project because once the initial installation of the main cable line is complete, Lipscomb said MEC will begin offering connections to customers living on main roads and throughout the community. “Our plan is to make fiber available to all our customers.”

In other business, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols shared the news that he previously delivered to school trustees — that the deadline for moving into the new consolidated secondary school complex in Baskerville is being pushed back one year at the request of the architects at Ballou Justice Upton and the project manager Skanska.

“The most recent information from Skanska and the architects is that this building climate across the nation is hot. Materials cost are higher and are hard to find. Subcontracting and workers are hard to find. So, the statement from them [the architect and project manager] is that there would be no way that any of the [contractors] would be able to complete the job in the initial timeline,” Nichols explained.

The planned opening for the school will now be at the start of the 2022-23 school year.

Nichols also said that Skanska held a pre-bid conference with contractors to assess interest in constructing the new facility. Four companies had representatives at the meeting and another two companies expressed interest.

He noted, too, that everyone involved in the project is paying close attention to construction costs and other factors in Henrico County and Richmond where several new school buildings are planned.

Supervisor Glanzy Spain said he continues to receive inquiries from the public about when work will begin at the site at the corner of Wooden Bridge Road and Highway 58. He jokingly asked Nichols if he could “at least push down some trees.”

Because the architects and Skanska are still waiting for permits from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as well as approvals from the US Army Corps of Engineers, the groundbreaking has also been pushed back from the September 10 date.

Nichols said the earliest he believes it will take place is October of this year.

Supervisors approved payment of an additional $39,203.52 to Meherrin River Regional Jail to cover the county’s share of the jail operating costs for the 2019 fiscal year.

A supplemental appropriation of $130,000 was made to the CSA to fund services provided during the month of June, and $6,550 was deposited into the county’s equipment replacement fund. The money came from VACORP — the county’s insurer — as payment for the loss of a 2008 Chevy Truck that was totaled during a vehicle collision.

VDOT Residency Manager Tommy Johnson said work to repair the bridge across Jolly Holly Creek should take about 60 days, and so travelers along Highway 92 should anticipate traffic delays. He expects to complete paving work on Twin Peaks and Probst Roads by the end of the construction season later this fall.

County Administrator Wayne Carter called for a brief public hearing on Monday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m. in the Board of Supervisors hearing room in Boydton to formerly vote on a resolution asking the Commonwealth Transportation Board to designate Prison Road in Boydton as a secondary road.

It is currently listed as a primary road even though Mecklenburg Correction Center — the reason for the road’s primary status — closed more than seven years ago.

Winona Proffitt was named to the Southside Community Services Board. She replaces Jan Hundley who resigned from the board in June.

Chairman Glenn Barbour referred a request from residents living in the Merrymont area of Buggs Island Lake to install no wake zone buoys in the water near these homes for safety reasons.

Zoning Administrator Robert Hendrick asked supervisors to consider changes to the zoning code regarding travel trailers and campers being installed on property around the county. He said he is getting “inundated with calls,” complaining that people are violating the law.

Currently, Mecklenburg County zoning prohibits a property owner from living — permanently or temporarily — in a travel trailer or camper on a property where there is an existing building.

Anyone wishing to place a travel trailer or camper on their property must meet certain permit and code conditions — the lot must be two acres or more, and there must be separate water and sewer connections.

Supervisors took no action on the request, believing current law adequately addresses the issue.

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