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East County Wednesday, Mar. 31, 2021 8 months ago

Federal money could improve internet access in Lakewood Ranch, Manatee County

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Commissioners say high-quality internet is a necessity from border to border in Manatee County.
by: Brendan Lavell Staff Writer

Amidst all the amenities that make Lakewood Ranch a top-ranked community, Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said it's ironic the area is also known for subpar internet service.

She said in today's world, excellent internet access is a necessity.

“When (schools) first went virtual, kids were sitting in hot cars in parking lots trying to get schoolwork done, because we were parking hotspots in the larger parking lot areas,” Commissioner George Kruse said. “Kids had to drive over there with their parents and sit in the backseat and try to get work done, while other kids, some of their classmates, were home on a couch in the air conditioning, relaxing in their pajamas getting work done.”

When commissioners learned the county would receive $78.2 million in pandemic relief funding from the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed by Congress on March 10, providing high-quality internet access stood out to Manatee County Commissioners as a top priority. No decisions have been made about how to spend the money at this point.

For some people, improving broadband coverage would mean having internet directly connected to their homes. For others, it would mean improving the speed or consistency of existing internet coverage.

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh believes Manatee County will be able to use federal money from the American Rescue Plan to address road projects, but Acting Administrator Karen Stewart (not pictured) is unsure. File photo.

Commissioners generally focused on two areas when speaking about where increased access to high-quality internet is needed — the northern and eastern portions of the county, where population growth is highest. Kruse also mentioned Oneco, Samoset and Palmetto.

Commissioner Carol Whitmore said East County is an obvious fit for improved broadband, considering its “bad coverage” at the moment and plans to build the East County Library near Premier Sports Campus.

“People come down here for the quality of life, the weather and the way that we live here,” Whitmore said. “If we want to attract businesses from all over the world and diversify what we do, we need to be competitive. And to me, that is broadband. Everybody's doing it. But we have this opportunity to possibly do this, where we would have never been able to do this in the past.”

In addition to wifi and internet problems in Lakewood Ranch, Baugh said it can be even more difficult to get good internet service in Myakka City and other areas closer to the county’s eastern border.

Although the switch to virtual events, work and schooling was necessitated by the pandemic in many cases, Kruse said some of these trends are likely here to stay. For example, he cited an increase in hybrid working situations, in which people work from home more often and only go into their offices when necessary. He also thinks schools could switch to temporary virtual learning when hurricanes threaten the area, so long as there aren’t power outages.

Manatee County Commissioner George Kruse said Manatee County needs to be wired with high-quality internet from border to border. File photo.

“We need to wire this place up,” Kruse said. “We've got the pipes. We’ve got the utilities in place all over here to be able to put fiber (optics) from one border to the other in Manatee County.”

Acting Administrator Karen Stewart said the county would need to conduct a study to determine which areas need improved internet service. Until then, the county doesn't know how much the improvements could cost. She added it would be great if Manatee County could become a “connected county.”

Stewart said the county is at the beginning of a process that would take three years or more to implement, which means there are few details to share as commissioners consider the project. For example, the county doesn't know if this work would be completed through a private company.

Broadband cables are usually installed underground along streets and from home to home, often attached to water pipes and other utilities. Baugh said if the county decides to pursue improved internet service, she’d like it done simultaneously with road improvements.

Windsong Acres residents Arlan Cummings and Howard Duff say widening Upper Manatee River Road would help with congestion. Commissioner Vanessa Baugh hopes the road can be addressed with federal money. File photo.

“There's no better time, generally, to put in broadband than when you're working on the roads,” Baugh said. “Then you only have to tear up the area once rather than twice.”

Baugh has a few specific road projects in mind, such as an extension of Lena Road to create a continuous route from State Road 64 to S.R. 70. The northern stretch of Lena Road is separated from the southern stretch by about a half-mile of forested and private land. She also wants to widen Upper Manatee River Road to four lanes north of S.R. 64 and consider adding roundabouts on Honore Avenue.

Stewart wasn’t sure road projects would be eligible for funding, but Baugh said Secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation Kevin Thibault told her the money could be used for road improvements.

Money from the American Rescue Plan must be used for pandemic-related assistance, but that term might be applied with a broad scope. Baugh used the example of ensuring emergency vehicles can efficiently use roads within Manatee County. That way, a COVID-19 patient can be picked up by an ambulance and transported to the hospital as quickly as possible.

“How often is it possible that law enforcement or EMS gets caught on a road and can't go through because of bumper-to-bumper traffic?” Baugh said. “Maybe it's just a two-lane road.”

Kruse also suggested Manatee County build its own trail system. He said Manatee County Parks & Natural Resources Director Charlie Hunsicker had previously drawn a design he hoped the county would implement. Hunsicker said the trail alignments in his plan have not yet been decided and added that his plan is more of a concept map.

"It blows me away that Sarasota (County) has this beautiful Legacy Trail that's jam packed all day long, because so many people want to use it because it's such a huge asset," Kruse said. "And it goes from the top of Sarasota all the way down to Venice, or at least it will once they're done with it. And then you've got Pinellas with beautiful trails everywhere. Then you got Hillsborough trails everywhere. We've got nothing."

Kruse said the county already owns the necessary land to build a continuous trail system from Payne Park near the southern border with Sarasota County through East County to Little Manatee River State Park near the northern border with Hillsborough County. 

For now, Stewart said the money can be used to provide assistance for individuals, small businesses, nonprofits and hard-hit industries such as tourism and hospitality or to invest in water, sewage and broadband infrastructure, among other possibilities. Stewart said she is still reading and digesting the bill, as of March 23.

The money can’t be used for projects that are already approved and funded, but Stewart said the county has been told by legislators projects must be “shovel-ready” when the county spends the funds, meaning permitting must be in place and construction ready to begin within a reasonable amount of time. Half of the funds will arrive by May 10, and the other half will arrive no sooner than one year later. All funds must be spent by the end of 2024.

In addition to the $78.2 million, the county will receive $12 million as part of the Emergency Rental Assistance program.

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Brendan Lavell is a general assignment reporter for the Observer. He earned degrees in journalism and history at the University of Missouri. He has visited 48 of the 50 United States, has a black cat named Arya and roots for the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, 76ers and Chelsea FC.

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