LAGRANGE — The third time proved to be the charm for Mark Leu, LaGrange County REMC CEO and president, who made a pitch Friday morning requesting to tap into the county’s Major Moves Fund to the tune of $5 million to help finance and build a new fiber-optic network the cooperative plans to build in rural LaGrange County.

The super committee of LaGrange County council members and commissioners who oversee the county’s Major Moves Fund voted 8-0 with one abstention. Councilman Jeff Brill, who also serves as a member of REMC’s board of directors, abstained.

Commissioner Larry Miller, who is hospitalized and recovering from COVID-19, did not participate.

REMC is a rural cooperative, owned by its members that provides electric services to rural homes throughout LaGrange County. Leu said expanding into fiber-optic Internet service is a natural extension of its business. With a network of utility poles and right-of-way agreements already in place, the new high-speed network will take about two years to construct.

The money granted to the not-for-profit company by the county will now be added to $15 million the cooperative has already leveraged to give it a total of $20 million in working capital, Leu said, the cost of building REMC’s new fiber-optic network. Construction on the project is expected to start early next year.

Standing at the podium inside the commissioner’s room at the county office building, Leu made his presentation for the second time this week.

Leu called the project “vital” for the economic welfare of the county. He pointed out that REMC is a customer-owned cooperative, and said the people who will ultimately benefit from this project are the same people who own the company, its members. In the past, Leu has said surveys conducted by REMC show that 95% of its members support the project and its goals.

“Ultimately, those people that we’re serving are the same people that you serve, they are your constituents. So when you give us this money, it’s not going away and disappearing, it’s going back to the same people who elected you to watch out for their best interests, and who elected our board to watch out for their best interests as well,” he said.

Leu said creating fast, reliable rural broadband service is both a state and federal priority and that this project has the support of the local business community, including endorsements from the LaGrange County Chamber of Commerce, the LaGrange County Economic Development Corp. and the LaGrange County Community Foundation, as well as schools and churches.

“Everyone is on board with this,” he explained.

Beth Sherman, executive director for the Chamber, said several businesses she talked with, looking to expand had turned away from LaGrange County because of a lack of broadband internet service. Sherman also said poor internet connectivity is problematic for people in the area with home-based businesses.

“It’s so needed for economic reasons,” she said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

Sherman was joined at the podium by Sherry Johnson of the LaGrange County EDC, as well as Parkview LaGrange Hospital President Jordi Disler, who said this project would improve local telemedicine.

“This project helps decrease a lot of barriers,” she said.

Ben Stucky, the lead pastor of the LaGrange Church of God, talked about how organizations like his are using the internet to help foster conversations about important local issues like the coronavirus. His church has produced a series of informational talks with local physicians for the web. But Stuckey said the church’s data showed people struggle to stay connected during those presentations because of the slow, limited rural Internet service. He encouraged committee members to look at the REMC project as an investment in the community.

Leu said conversations with other local internet providers have shown that no other organizations are interested at this time in providing high-speed internet service to customers in rural LaGrange County.

“This is the best project Major Moves has seen since its inception,” he told the committee, “probably the best project in terms of its return. You have a chance to positively affect LaGrange County in an amazing way for years to come. My question to you is what do you want your legacy as commissioners and councilmen to be? That you said no to an investment in the future of LaGrange County so that you could let Major Moves funds sit there and earn next to nothing in interest and let its value be eroded by inflation, or, do you want to be visionary leaders that made an investment in LaGrange County that’s going to return at least 400% and make residents lives better?”

That statement drew a loud round of applause from the members of the hearing’s audience.

When questioned, Leu said once the project is up and running, REMC will look at options that would allow it to expand its services into under-served communities like LaGrange which doesn’t have high-speed internet services available. He said an expansion of REMC into the communications industry would also expand what the company pays in state and local taxes by about $150,000 a year.

When asked by Council President Peter Cook if anyone on the committee had any additional questions, Commissioner Terry Martin wasted little time making a motion to grant REMC $5 million in Major Moves funds.

“I don’t think you’re going to find a better project,” he said. “If we want to continue to grow as a community, we have to do something about internet service. It’s not where it needs to be.”

LaGrange County Commissioner Dennis Kratz seconded his motion.

After an 8-0-1 roll call vote, LaGrange County Auditor Kathy Hopper announced the motion had passed, prompting another round of applause from the audience.

Leu estimated 25 megabit-per-second service will cost customers about $60 a month, which is similar to what consumer customers in cities pay for entry-level broadband service.
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