At Accomack Hearing, Broadband Tops Public’s Recovery Priorities

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By Carol Vaughn —

A crowd turned out for a meeting the Accomack County Board of Supervisors held June 2 to receive comment about using federal pandemic recovery funds.
The board will continue discussion about how to spend nearly $6.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds at its June 16 meeting.
The county will get the money in two payments — half was sent in May and half will be sent in 12 months.
It is intended to support COVID-19 response efforts; replace lost public sector revenue; support economic stabilization for households and businesses; and address systemic public health and economic challenges that contributed to the pandemic’s unequal impact on certain populations.
Funds must be obligated by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by Dec. 31, 2026.
Accomack lost nearly $2.4 million due to the pandemic, according to a federal calculation. Replacing that revenue is among allowable uses for the funds.
Another allowable use is for infrastructure — including water, sewer, and broadband.
Speakers Plea for Broadband Funding
Of 24 speakers, 10, including from Virginia Organizing, Captains Cove, and Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore, requested money be used to improve broadband access.
Colby Phillips, Captains Cove senior general manager, said the community has 120 school-age children and also residents who telework who need better internet service.
“I hope we can show you we are shovel-ready and deserving of a substantial share of the American Rescue Plan funding,” resident David Phelp said.
Shannon Wright said a survey to which 588 households responded found 265 individuals are learning remotely and 524 work from home.
The Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority is working on engineering plans for Captains Cove, Wright said, adding the scope is not yet known.
“We have 17 1/2 miles of roadway that tomorrow could serve nearly 1,000 homes if that were covered with broadband internet access,” she said.
Karen Downing, of Virginia Organizing, spoke about disparities exposed by the pandemic, including in broadband access.
The access rate in Accomack is 68.5%, well below the 83.9% statewide rate, she said.
“We are asking the county to allocate 50% or more” of the funds to increase broadband access, she said.
“Considering broadband as a public utility should be given serious thought,” the Rev. Rick Willis, of Virginia Organizing, said, adding, “The fact that so many people are here this evening to address this issue is encouraging and hopeful.”
Sue Mastyl, CBES internet access committee chairperson, requested funds be used to expand broadband into critical areas and offset cost of installation and monthly service “to those in most need.”
“It’s basically taken us 13 years to get to 50% (coverage on the Shore). Really the question in front of all now is how much longer until we get full coverage. We can’t wait another 13 years; we really shouldn’t wait another three. For the Shore to be competitive in every field we need good, reliable, and affordable internet coverage as soon as possible,” said CBES President Arthur Upshur.
More Requests
Others advocated spending for childcare, the foodbank, library construction, Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center, groundwater research, volunteer fire companies, and shelter for domestic violence victims.
Paul Muhly, public library construction steering committee member, asked the board for $230,000, saying COVID-19 resulted in delays and additional costs.
Wayne Bell and Ann Williams requested $500,000 for a childcare center.
Non-profit Children’s Harbor of Hampton Roads has a contract to open a center at the former Fairgrounds restaurant near Onancock, with plans to hire 25 to 30 employees. They hope to open the center this year.
Grayson Chesser, of the Eastern Shore Groundwater Committee, asked for funds for projects including more observation wells.
Sean Fate and David Fluhart, of Wachapreague Volunteer Fire Company, asked for financial help, noting the company had to cancel its main fundraiser, the carnival, two consecutive years.
Charmin Horton, Foodbank director, asked for $300,000 to address food insecurity.
Colby West, Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center director, asked for $30,000 for improvements to better accommodate after-school programs.
Kelvin Pettit, Mary N. Smith Alumni Association president, said one of the main revenue sources, building rentals, dried up during the pandemic and impacted ability to continue renovations.
He estimated the association lost $65,000 and asked the county to make up the loss.
The Rev. Willie Justis, of In Touch Academy, asked for $50,000 over three years. The academy provides after-school and summer programs to children at no cost.
Shelley Strain, Eastern Shore Coalition Against Domestic Violence executive director, asked for $250,000 to help seed a $1 million-plus project to expand emergency shelter from the existing capacity of 12 to 16 up to 40.
Evelyn Shotwell, Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce executive director, asked for
money for staffing.
Chamber Asks Officials to Take Long View
Robert Sabbatini, Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce executive director, urged officials to take a long-term perspective.
“The U.S. government wisely provided a great degree of flexibility in not only what these funds can be spent on, but when they need to be spent. We have until the end of 2024 to obligate them and 2026 to spend them. They did that for good reason, giving us lots of time to invest this funding thoughtfully,” he said.
The chamber proposed Shore counties cooperate to invest in areas that will bring a future return to residents, including affordable housing, childcare, transportation, broadband, workforce training, reducing energy costs, and economic development.
Ace Seybolt, first vice-chairman, asked money be used to offer incentives to residents re-entering the workforce after receiving unemployment.
The chamber asked the board to set aside at least 20% of the funds for strategic, long-term investments and offered to convene leaders from various sectors to create a strategic plan to present to the board of supervisors, Sabbatini said.