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To bring townships together

February 11, 2020 by Abigail Bostwick

Affordable rural internet coverage and access continue to be challenges for many pockets of the Northwoods, an ongoing issue leaders in Vilas County are considering advocating for in one voice. 
“Is there any support from this committee or the county board?” Vilas County Economic Development Corporation (VCEDC) executive director Kathy Schmitz asked of the Vilas County Economic Development, Tourism and UW-Extension Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 5. “A lot of good is already being done in this county (for broadband) … many are wondering now is if support is available from this committee and the county board. We are looking for a home for it.” 
While some townships have been successful in establishing broadband, such as Land O’ Lakes, others are working on it — like Boulder Junction — and others are just starting to consider it, such as the town of Phelps. Schmitz indicated most of the county is looking for one reliable source or hub for which to turn to. Others are not sure where to start. 
“Each town is on its own with this. Is there a way to collaborate more?” Schmitz offered. “For support and guidance … a lot of towns out there are feeling a little lost with the process.”
Reliable internet supports tourism as well as economic development and a stable base for residents, it was further indicated. 
Committee member Marv Anderson wondered what the scope would include in being this source. 
“I think the county board can be that cohesive body that brings the pieces together … to advocate for resources,” Schmitz explained, relaying she would be happy to create a structure towards that effort, including a possible new committee of eight to 10. “It would be one contact. If you want broadband, or help with broadband, that’s what I see as beneficial.” 
The committee would focus on broadband resources, grants or matching grants and giving direction to those interested. 
“I think it would be a really valuable resource,” Schmitz said.
“I’d say the county is willing to be involved,” committee chair Holly Tomlanovich noted, adding she would like to see some specifics, however. 
Committee member Carolyn Ritter relayed part of the issue is locating available funding, grants, methods of fundraising as well as state resources. 
“How do we bridge that gap?” Ritter questioned. “With a small community base, can we find companies willing to invest. If so, is there enough community base to support that to keep it going?"
Jay Verhulst, committee member, stated in recent weeks, he has received “dozens” of phone calls regarding internet coverage — either lack of or paying for service and not receiving it, or reliable service. 
“I think this should be a hot issue that goes on the agenda each month,” Verhulst added. 
The town of Phelps recently met to discuss the possibility of broadband, Schmitz added, a meeting which “… went well.”
“We need guidance on how to fund this,” said Steve Doyen, committee member and town of Phelps chair. “How do we pay for this? How do we search for grants? Where do we look … all townships are burdened with road (funding) … we’re only capable of borrowing so much and being able to pay it back.”

Other news 
In other matters, the county committee: 
• Heard the revolving loan fund update, which has not had any start to finish applications at this time. The loan is meant to be “gap funding” for businesses just starting out or expanding, along with a primary lender. Further outreach efforts are planned, noted VCEDC board member, Bob Egan. 
• Learned efforts to revitalize and establish use of the Vilas County Fairgrounds are ongoing. Soon, there will be a roundtable effort with fair board members, Egan, Vilas County corporation counsel, Tomlanovich and others to “… really figure out what the direction is,” observed Tomlanovich. The current lease on the grounds is “antiquated,” she added, and will be updated, among other issues addressed. 
• Got an update from said Jeff Currie, Great Headwaters Trails and The River Trail Commission spokesperson. The commission was established in 2018 by the towns of Cleveland and St. Germain and the city of Eagle River to develop a 10.2 biking and hiking trail to connect the 55-mile Heart of Vilas Trail in St. Germain to the 13-mile Three Eagle Trail in Eagle River. The route, the “River Trail,” would follow State Highway 71 next to the Wisconsin River. 
A feasibility study is being discussed with organizations including county highway, tourism, economic development, UW-Extension, supervisors, sheriff’s department and police, snowmobile groups, Wisconsin Public Service, Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company and some businesses. 
“It’s actually a major thing for the county,” Currie said. “This is an economic development use of infrastructure that few areas anywhere north of Highway 29 or even the southern part of the state can match.” 
• Heard from Sarah Pischer, Manitowish Chamber of Commerce, that while winter snowmobile conditions and tourism have been great, poor ice conditions have meant a hit on ice fishing as well as several ice fishing tournament events. 
“We want to be sure everyone is safe, though it is unfortunate we’re losing out on some of that,” Pischer noted. 
Abigail Bostwick may be reached at [email protected].


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