BRISTOL, Va. — Groups of Southwest Virginia educators and broadband providers offered plenty of suggestions to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine Thursday about priorities for pending federal infrastructure legislation.
Kaine met with a group of broadband providers Thursday afternoon — discussing their concerns and seeking suggestions on how to best fund service gaps in hard-to-reach rural areas. He later spoke with school superintendents and school board members about how the infrastructure bill could aid in areas like school construction and renovation.
The stops were part of a statewide fact-finding trip.
“I think we’re going to put a lot of money into broadband. I just want to make sure it’s spent right,” Kaine said. “I would say the best takeaway was the suggestion — as you’re allocating broadband funds — don’t just allocate dollars to states. What about an allocation to the Appalachian Regional Commission?
“The mountainous nature of Appalachia makes the telecom connectivity issue tougher. Given that ARC is set up, has a good track record and is well respected, that might be a really good way to allocate money to a trusted organization with a guarantee it would get to some of our high need population,” Kaine said.
Kaine called the infrastructure bill, the “big opportunity” because it will likely include a “dramatic” investment in broadband infrastructure.
Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission Executive Director Jim Baldwin touted their efforts using public-private partnerships to better leverage federal and Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission funds. Federal grants were used to establish a fiber-optic backbone, originally in conjunction with BVU OptiNet and now with Point Broadband.
“We’re very happy with our partnership with Point. They’re a company working to provide service to our underserved areas — areas that are tough to get to,” Baldwin said. “We’re up the hollers to reach people.”
A $16 million award “parlayed itself” into a $45 million project, Baldwin said.
“We put skin in the game, and that’s a model that we hope to take into the future,” he said. “Eventually, it gets to the funding and the ability to put together public and private partnerships to get things done.”
They also urged Kaine to simplify the process for unlocking those funds to get them into projects sooner.
While the senator said he expected to hear about broadband concerns from educators, much of that discussion centered on making sure the bill includes funds for school construction or renovation.
“These superintendents have significant renovation needs and they have to wait year after year or decade after decade to do repairs,” Kaine said. “We have an opportunity to do something really big and help Virginia schools with renovation and construction.”
Bristol Virginia Superintendent Keith Perrigan outlined the city’s current quandary — with plans to close three aging elementary schools and consolidate them into one or two other sites.
“They’re not handicap accessible, they’re multi levels, they’re full of asbestos and we have issues with technology, water, electricity, in those buildings,” Perrigan said of the old schools. “One of the problems we had is our city really doesn’t have the capacity to do that on our own. … 2009 was the last year we received state funding for school renovations, and we don’t get federal funds.”
Perrigan and other superintendents urged Kaine to streamline the process of awarding funds while asking for help in untangling some federal COVID-19 relief funds already awarded.
“We’ve been fully open, in person, since Aug. 20. We don’t have the challenges of getting schools open,” Perrigan said, outlining all the completed work funded by federal dollars. “If we could get some flexibility to use that for infrastructure or even property acquisition to build a new school, it would be a generational game-changer.”
Kaine is scheduled to remain in the region today with planned stops in Duffield, Pennington Gap and Jonesville.
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