The county commissioners’ hopes to expand public high-speed internet access with state funds made available as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic may have been dashed on Tuesday.
Matt Sward with the Loogootee-based Southern Indiana Development Commission has been helping the commissioners apply for funds available through the state’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs, ones specifically meant to help rural communities through the pandemic.
Already, the county received $250,000 to hand out as mini-grants to small businesses.
More funds have been made available — for a variety of uses — and the county has looked again to Sward for help in applying yet again.
Among the uses for the this third round of OCRA funds is the expansion of public internet access, and with there being so many rural areas here without any access at all, the commissioners thought it at least a step in the right direction to offer internet access in public areas.
But Sward said as he’s researched more about this third, more liberal round, it’s likely still not possible.
Securing money for public wifi spaces would require, per grant guidelines, an income survey, but they’re also not allowing communities to actually conduct them at the moment due to the pandemic.
Only communities with an income survey — one showing that enough residents meet federal low-to-moderate income guidelines — already on the books can apply.
Knox County doesn’t have such a survey at the moment.
“We can talk to OCRA,” Sward told the commissioners during their regular meeting Tuesday, “but based on (what I learned at) the webinar, it’s unlikely.”
Sward offered to talk more with OCRA to see if there’s any way the county could still apply for the wifi funds, and the commissioners pleaded with him to do all he could.
“I’d definitely like to kick this around a little longer before we hit the cement button on it,” said county commission president Trent Hinkle.
New commissioner T.J. Brink agreed.
“I would like to explore it further,” he said. “We have some rural areas that are really bad. I think that’s something we’ve learned as schools have moved to e-learning. We certainly need more broadband.
“So I think we need to explore it and make sure there’s nothing else we can do.”
Commissioner Kellie Streeter pointed to the North Knox School Corp., which during the initial COVID-19 shutdown offered wifi hot spots for students who didn’t have access to high-speed internet service.
“We’re very thankful for those,” she said. “But we’ve also got serious issues at our parks. Doing something there could serve many people.
“So it’s a conversation worth having.”
The timeline, however, is somewhat short; Sward said proposals are due on Jan. 29 with completed applications due about a month later.
But there are, he said, other possibilities. With each grant round have come more opportunities to spend the money.
Communities, for instance, can apply for up to $250,000 to benefit things like food banks or even help with child care services.
“The county just needs to decide what it wants to do,” he said.
Some of the areas the commissioners have said they could potentially add high-speed internet service are the county parks, specifically Ouabache Trails Park, Hillcrest Park and the Fox Ridge Nature Park as well as public spots in some of the county’s smaller towns.
As far as the first round of OCRA funds, the commissioners on Tuesday awarded three more mini-grants totaling $15,000 to three county businesses.
The county has so far awarded 29 businesses money from its first OCRA grant award.
They have left about $105,000 to give away.
The county is still taking applications from businesses interested in the mini-grant program.
Three existing applications remain on the table, Sward said Tuesday, as the county must ensure, collectively, that at least 51% of all employees affected by the grant dollars meet federal low-to-moderate income guidelines.
Approving those three applications would drop the county below that threshold, but as more come in, they could be awarded later.
The state let grant recipients set their own payment tiers; the commissioners developed two: businesses with fewer than 25 employees are eligible for $5,000, those with more than 25 employees can get $10,000.
The commissioners have until May to spend the remaining funds.