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Will Pagosa be a ‘hot spot?’

The town of Pagosa Springs could become a giant “hot spot” by fall 2010 if a Department of Local Affairs grant comes through next year.

Being a hot spot has nothing to do with the town’s geothermal resources. What it would mean is that computers with wireless fidelity (WiFi) capacity would be able to connect to the Internet anywhere in town and in some parts of Archuleta County.

Infrastructure for providing WiFi in the area would be funded, for the most part, through a Department of Local Affairs grant and also due to the town and county’s participation in the Southwest Council of Governments (SWCOG).

Earlier this year, both town and county decided to join SWCOG to provide an additional funding mechanism. Composed of counties and municipalities from the Four Corners area, the SWCOG was formed to gain access to state and federal funding, especially for projects that include multiple jurisdictions. As explained by Region 9 Economic Development District Assistant Director Laura Lewis-Marchino at a May joint meeting with the town and county, more and more federal and state funding opportunities are being awarded to COGs rather than individual municipalities.

If awarded, the DOLA grant would provide about $560,000 for fiber optic infrastructure, with the town and county providing 25 percent in matching funds. The fiber optic network would connect all local government offices to the fiber line, as well as to WiFi towers strategically located throughout the area.

Presenting information on the project at the Nov. 3 Town Council meeting, Pagosa Springs Town Manager David Mitchem said the project would, “Establish all of Pagosa Springs as a hot spot so that you could sit by the river with your computer and do your business,” adding, “CenturyTel has done this in Vail with great success.”

Conceding that the town faced tough budgeting decisions over the next month with scant resources for capital improvements, Mitchem nonetheless said he felt the investment would be worth the town’s commitment.

Asked by council member Shari Pierce if he’d received a funding commitment from other government entities benefitting from the fiber optic network, Mitchem replied that he had not. “But even if no one else commits (to the funding), I think it’s worth it for us to move forward with this.”

Mitchem said that funding requirements for the project would be somewhere in the range of $140,000 to $187,000, but could not guarantee total costs. Although the various taxing districts and the county would all be connected by the new network (despite no commitment to offset the cost of matching funds), Mitchem said he felt the project would come with its own economic benefit.

“I think it will pay great dividends as we compete for high-tech businesses,” Mitchem said.

Council member Mark Weiler agreed, saying, “I strongly recommend that we use this as the cornerstone of our economic development.”

While the town and county currently have some fiber optic lines, that infrastructure is currently owned by Century Link (formerly CenturyTel) and, while the town would own fiber optic lines added in through the DOLA grant, CenturyLink would still control internet access throughout the network. As such, the town would not be able to run the network as an enterprise.

Council member Darrell Cotton expressed some reservations about the network connecting government entities that had not agreed to pay into the required match for the grant.

“If this is about economic development, why not connect businesses who want to pay into this?”

Mitchem explained that the grant’s purpose was to connect governments, with the intention of making communication and information sharing more efficient.

“This is not an economic development grant, this is a connect-the-government grant,” Mitchem said, adding, “Greg Schulte (Archuleta County Administrator) and I turned it into an economic development grant.”

Before presenting a motion to fund the match, Weiler said, “I think this is as good a project as we’ll see in the next five to six months.”

The motion passed with only Pierce objecting (in a later interview with SUN staff, Pierce said she objected only because the motion did not include a dollar cap in its language).

Should DOLA award the grant, work will begin in the spring with an expected completion by early next fall.

jim@pagosasun.com