“Get connected, stay connected, live connected.”
That marketing tagline sums up how Lake County officials manage to keep one of the most expensive federal stimulus broadband projects in the country alive. The costs of the Lake Connections fiber optic network project in the vast northern Minnesota wilderness continue to increase, and local taxpayers are now footing part of the ever-growing bill.
In recent months, the USDA Rural Utilities Service began withholding county payments, reportedly concerned the project might run out of $66.5 million in federal stimulus grants and low-interest loans before finishing the job. Companies owed several million dollars pulled back from the project, while other vendors began insisting on payment up front.
“In the past, I was having such a hard time. They wouldn’t pay us and they wouldn’t pay us,” said Larry Sandretsky, line superintendent for Cooperative Light and Power. “So once they shut down for a while, when they came back on board, I requested that we’re paid up front.”
The beleaguered project just got back up and running again, however, under a deal evidently brokered by U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn. The northeastern Minnesota congressman’s announcement of a compromise to allow cash to start flowing again included news of a $3.5 million Federal Communications Commission grant for the network.