County Economic Development Committee hears more on broadband project funding

The Marquette County Economic Development Committee met September 14th with further discussion about plans to expand broadband internet in the county.

Of the $3 million allotted to Marquette County by the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA), the county board allocated $1.7 million toward a plan to expand broadband internet services in three areas: one in the Towns of Mecan, Shields and Montello, one in the Town of Packwaukee and one in the Springfield area. Patrick Scully from the Marquette-Adams Telephone Cooperative reported that Charter/Spectrum challenged the application for the first of those areas, saying the plan overlapped an area they planned to develop with grant funding. However, because the funding hadn’t been released for them yet, the Public Service Commission dismissed that challenge and are now in the review process. 

In the process of gathering full funding for the project and Marquette-Adams applying for additional grant money needed for this work, the towns that are involved were asked to contribute their shares of ARPA money. Scully reported that Packwaukee contributed over $148,000 of their grant, Springfield $88,550, and Mecan $74,000. 

The towns of Montello and Shields did not contribute any of their ARPA funds, he said. Scully feels it may be harder to win grant money for their portion of the project as a result.

Marquette County Economic Development & Tourism Coordinator Keri Solis noted that the grant program has $100 million available but received $400 million in applications, so their success will depend on how the application is scored. Scully felt Marquette-Adams checked most, if not all, the boxes in their application.

He also said there is talk of an additional round of grant funding, possibly through ARPA again.

On another potential use of ARPA funds discussion, Solis is looking into whether those funds can be used toward development of childcare. The county has several challenges when it comes to childcare, she said, including pay and benefits for teachers, and affordability for families.

Committee member Gayle Mack said she thinks Marquette County would rank pretty high and would like to see the subject come before the county board for a discussion. “I don’t think this is on their radar,” she noted. “I know two families who moved to Portage because childcare was not available.”

She also discussed the employee pay challenge, saying that she doesn’t think this county has got what it takes to pay people like they do at a center where her neighbor works at in Madison, where families with professional jobs can pay, “whatever it takes to take care of their kids.”

Scully added to the conversation, agreeing that childcare is a huge priority. He said existing centers have staffing challenges and described how a local center has a huge waiting list with an uphill battle to meet certification requirements. He said he takes his children to Portage for childcare because of the lack of availability locally.

Solis is looking at a start grant that was recently released which can help existing or potential new daycares to see what possibilities it may offer.

In other grant news, Solis said a grant was submitted for technical assistance for planning at the fairgrounds. It can offer some high-level technical assistance for potential future designing at the fairgrounds, she said. A survey was completed that offered feedback on what people want to see at the fairgrounds. People said they want a better facility for animal shows, camping facilities, more regional-type animal shows, music events, and a temperature-controlled building that can be used year-round.

“We have a couple buildings that are past their prime,” Solis reported, including the historic round barn in which modern cattle have a hard time fitting into the stalls. There are also drainage issues at the fairgrounds, such as by the 4-H food stand, where water can run through after heavy rain. The county is looking at these issues, along with what can be done to make the property usable for more than 10 days a year.

Mack reported that the Property Committee approved working on a master plan for the fairgrounds and the county board of supervisors had an initial discussion about the buildings. She felt many county board members are big supporters of making improvements to the facilities so they can be made available to the community.

Mack noted, “We are a strong ag community and 4-H is great for kids.” She said more kids are raising smaller animals these days, so it will make more sense to look at facilities for smaller animals, rather than the large ones, pointing to the recent small animal barn project that was done.

In addition to plans to repair the round barn roof, improvements are being made to the plumbing in the campground area. The master plan will give more direction beyond these repairs and the drainage issue.

She is also continuing to keep an eye out for grants that businesses, communities, and the county could use.

In reports from committee members, Gary Doudna reported that Montello’s downtown business owners have been pleased with this year. Campgrounds and motels have reported a great year and tourism in this area, as well as around the state, is up this year. He reported nothing new at the business park but noted an upcoming meeting regarding potential business for a lot across from Freitag’s Foods.

Gayle Mack reported Briggsville lost their elementary school, which closed recently. She said the news was not received well in the community. People put up posters and attended a school board meeting, “but it was a done deal” at that point, she said. Mack noted there was a very low population of kids going to the school. “We lost our identity when we lost that school,” she said. Solis reported the school building was scheduled to be listed for sale, following school board action earlier that week.

Emily Roidt-Stevenson reported in the area of banking that they are starting to see a slowdown in refinancing applications. They are still seeing a lot of new construction, even though costs remain high. Most contractors she has heard of are fully booked for 2021 and starting into 2022 and 2023.

Scully reported that Marquette-Adams is chipping away at work funded by grants won last year. They are doing a main line in the Westfield area but holding off on marketing it until they get caught up. They are also hosting a customer appreciation event at Oxford Village Park on September 25th.

Solis reported on a parks and recreation survey done recently that received 330 responses, about a third of which were not county residents. They found “loud and clear” that people want more hiking trails, improved boat launches, canoe and kayak put ins, and shore fishing opportunities. Responses went to Pat Kilbey in Parks & Rural Planning for creation of a new outdoor recreation plan.

She said tourism has been “hot” this summer. Businesses are saying more people were here during weekdays than there ever were in the past.

Looking at cell phone tracking data, Solis sees the same shift starting in 2020. It shows small bumps in numbers on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, then a big bump in Thursday arrivals and a decline on Saturdays.

Doudna, who owns Buffalo Lake Camping Resort, echoed her findings, saying a lot more people are arriving on Thursdays and staying through Sunday night. They stay 3-4 nights now, where it used to be 2-3 nights. With occupancy sold out on weekends, more people started to arrive on Sundays or Mondays for their stays.