Stakeholders plead for county help to get high-speed bandwidth

MARSHALL CO. — Many who stand to gain from a high speed bandwidth connection between Plymouth and South Bend visited the Marshall County Council meeting Tuesday.
Representatives from local organizations including Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center, K-Trade, and the Niles Lankford Group joined others representing small business, city and county government in asking the council to consider support of the $2.2 million project. Proposed by the county’s Technology Squared committee is connecting existing Metronet fiber in St. Joseph County to Marshall County along U.S. 31.
To accomplish this, the city of Plymouth and Marshall County will need to share costs.
“Each and every passing day, month, and year, we become more dependent on the Internet,” said Ron Clinger, Chief Financial Officer for KTrade and Niles Lankford Group — both companies in Plymouth dealing with retirement plans.
“When the Internet is bogged down, (our employees) can’t work — literally,” said Clinger, adding that out of the companies’ 50 employees, 20 work from remote locations.
“We are out of options to meet the needs that we have, in order to meet the needs of our clients,” said Clinger.
Gary Miller, regional information technology director for SJRMC, also spoke in favor of the project.
“We have been customers of Metronet for the past five years in St. Joseph County,” said Miller. “It saves us a quarter of a million dollars every year.”
Miller said that SJRMC is expanding its practices in Marshall County and “we have to assure that this data connectivity will be available to us.”
He noted that communication between St. Joseph and Marshall County locations of SJRMC would be easier and quicker with the Metronet connection between the two counties.
Curt Feece, who owns a small information technology business and also teaches vocational classes to area high school students, spoke on the project.
“I’ve been a passionate advocate for Metronet,” said Feece. “This is absolutely critical to Marshall County and to small businesses.”
He said that he’s seen a big difference between his Marshall and St. Joseph County customers, as far as what they are able to do with their technology. The difference, he said, is that St. Joseph County has access to the Metronet while Marshall County does not.
Feece added that Internet use in local school corporations also keeps increasing.
“I’ve been able to witness firsthand our limitations just in our high school’s system,” said Feece.
Jennifer Laurent, Marshall County Economic Development director, said that she repeatedly sees large companies passing Marshall County by because of the area’s lack of fiber connectivity.
“For us, status quo is not an option,” said Laurent. “We need high quality jobs to maintain a good quality of life. The current thought that many of us share is that Marshall County is a good place to live. This thought will not be shared by future generations…(Without the connectivity) Marshall County will increasingly not measure up, and that’s why (this project) is urgent.”
Laurent said that high speed bandwidth that will come from the Metronet fiber is a line item sought by companies looking to expand into new areas. It’s also needed to help keep companies already in Marshall County on a competitive level nationally and globally.
Michael Marshall, county information technology director, said that the connectivity is important to the county for backing up information and storing it off-site.
“It’s our job to be thinking ahead, and if both (the Marshall County Building and the courthouse) were to go down, how would we function?” said Marshall, continuing,
“I’m not promising cost savings, I’m promising sleep at night. If this building were to collapse, how would we take in tax payments?”
Plymouth’s mayor, Mark Senter, and city attorney, Sean Surrisi, were present to confirm that the city is behind the project and willing to negotiate the shared costs with the county.
“Plymouth’s cooperation with Marshall County now is as strong as I’ve ever seen it,” noted Senter.
Brent Martin, of the Technology Squared committee, said that the purpose of stakeholders visiting the Tuesday meeting is to keep council members up to speed on the project and make sure they are well informed. The committee is not yet officially asking for funding. The first step in the Metronet project is to pay an engineering consultant $60,000 to determine specific costs. Then the city and council can consider moving forward with “Phase One” — installing infrastructure for the fiber to run from South Bend to Plymouth, and in a loop around Plymouth. Later phases of the project include extending the infrastructure to other communities in Marshall County including Bourbon, Bremen, Culver, and Argos.
Martin explained that although federal funds were sought for the project, they were not granted, and as a result a public and private partnership is needed.
“No other providers give us the capability…that Metronet does,” said Martin.
Ralph Booker, council member and member of the Technology Squared committee, said, “I think it’s no secret that I am in favor of this…We can either stay as we are — a small community — or we can grow. We just have to make that decision.”