GAYLORD - Before a standing room-only crowd Tuesday, Sibley County commissioners approved a resolution to support a publicly owned, privately operated fiber optic broadband project to provide high-speed Internet to Sibley and Renville counties.
Communities would sell about $70 million in revenue bonds to pay for the network that would offer cable TV and telephone service throughout the counties.
Sibley County Economic Development Authority (EDA) Director Tim Dolan said the concept began several years ago when the Winthrop City Council began comparing city and rural Internet service.
"Rural people really need this the most," Dolan said. "I live in the country (rural Winthrop address). People in the city can do things online that I can't. There's Internet service variability depending upon where you are."
Dolan said Sibley County commissioners approved the project because parameters including approval by all county townships and more than half the county population were met.
"The (fiber optic project) business plan looks much better now with about 55 percent of county residents signed up (on pledge cards)," Dolan added. "When you do a cash flow based on that, things look pretty good, much better than a month ago."
Earlier this year, the Arlington City Council opted out of the project.
"They weren't comfortable with the way the business plan was set up," Dolan said. "We've picked up an awful lot of support since then."
The Henderson City Council was expected to vote on the project Wednesday night.
"If Henderson approves it, we'll have to do some late mop-up work," Dolan added.
He said the RS Fiber Project Joint Powers Board meets at 7 p.m., Thursday, April 26 at Winthrop City Hall to set up the next steps of the project.
"With the latest sign-up results, we expect favorable results," Dolan said. "Oppenheimer Securities of Minneapolis is set to take the ball and run with bonding," he added.
Winthrop Mayor Dave Trebelhorn said the public would own fiber optic project infrastructure and the joint powers board would hire a system operator.
"It's a unique project that will take two years to set up," Trebelhorn added. "We would have enough bonding for three years of operation. The project is forecast to have a positive cash flow by its fourth year."
Trebelhorn emphasized that the Sibley and Renville county boards approved resolutions supporting the project for rural people while each city council represents people living in towns.
He added that if the Arlington City Council feels differently about the fiber project now, they'd have to act fast.
Meanwhile, Winthrop resident Dale Malheim, a retired U.S. Army Motor Sergeant and Iraq War Veteran, wants a city referendum vote on the project. He presented a copy of his petition drive to city officials.
Winthrop City Attorney Don Lannoye said the Winthrop City Charter has provisions for petitions.
"We're reviewing it and will decide if it fits the charter or not at the next council meeting (set for 7 p.m., Monday, May 7)," Lannoye said.
Malheim said he has more than the required number of signatures, because he wants Winthrop residents to vote on the issue.
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