WILLMAR—A $25,000 grant from the Blandin Foundation has been awarded to study the lack of broadband Internet service in Kandiyohi County.
Word that the grant had been approved came Wednesday, said Connie Schmoll, business development specialist with the Kandiyohi County and City of Willmar Economic Development Commission.
Schmoll told the EDC operations board Thursday that the Blandin grant will be matched with $25,000 from Kandiyohi County and $12,500 from Federated Telephone Cooperative based in Chokio.
The money will be used to hire a consultant to conduct a feasibility study of areas in the county that are unserved and underserved in terms of Internet speed and availability.
The EDC is now seeking requests for proposals from marketing and engineering firms to conduct the study.
The EDC’s broadband committee “has been meeting for years and years to get something done on this,” Schmoll said.
Getting the grant is “huge,” she said. “We’re excited about the study.”
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development has set minimum standards for Internet speeds, with a good portion of the county falling in the unserved and underserved category.
Willmar, Spicer and New London meet the standards, but many rural businesses and residents do not, Schmoll said.
Federated Telephone recently received a $4.9 million state grant to install high-speed internet service in portions of Swift County.
Having that infrastructure next door could enhance Kandiyohi County’s options for expanded broadband service, Schmoll said.
Private telephone companies that currently operate in Kandiyohi County have not been eager to expand their fiber-optic lines because of the cost — the return on investment can take 10 to 12 years.
Federated is a cooperative that is able to have a longer time frame for a return on investment than private telephone companies have, Schmoll said.
But she said even cooperatives cannot manage the large investment costs without state grants, such as the one it recently received infrastructure in Swift County.
Schmoll said the EDC’s broadband committee met earlier this month with Sen. Lyle Koenen and Reps. Dave Baker and Tim Miller to discuss talking points to bring to the Legislature regarding Internet funding.
In other business, the board was informed that the contract for Aaron Backman, who was selected last week as the new EDC executive director, is under review by attorneys. Pending approval by the EDC Joint Powers Board, Backman could begin his new job here on Feb. 22.
Asian grocery store
The operations board also approved a $18,000 loan to Yaw Soe Hang, whose family intends to open an Asian grocery store in Willmar this year.
The EDC loan will be paired with a $17,000 loan from the Southwest Initiative Fund and $5,000 from the crowdfunding source called KIVA. A $10,000 loan requested from the Willmar Area Multicultural Market is also pending.
To be called the Happy Family Asian Grocery Store, the family-owned business is expected to be located in the Kandi Mall strip mall in Willmar.
According to information from Hang, who was born in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and came to the United States in 2011 after living in a refugee camp for almost 10 years, the store will feature groceries to meet a variety of Asian cultures.
West Central Tribune by Carolyn Lange