South Portland broadband plan could hit funding snag

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SOUTH PORTLAND — An action plan for using $436,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds received unanimous City Council approval Tuesday night.

However, the plan to be submitted to the Cumberland County Commissioners, and eventually the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, could hit a snag in a $50,000 allocation to expand broadband internet service into Knightville.

“This is like being a dusty old western town and the train shows up. You don’t just get the train, you get everything that comes with the train,” resident Ross Little said of the broadband expansion in a city partnership with Biddeford-based GWI.

The train has arrived, to a degree, since broadband service is already offered commercially in the neighborhood, which has seen a revival over the last decade.

Little is also the city Economic Development Committee chairman, and while he’s not playing a role in the Community Development Advisory Committee allocation process, he supports the expansion for its economic benefits to the neighborhood.

But as Sandy Warren, the Cumberland County Community Development coordinator noted, updated results from the American Community Survey made by the U.S. Census Bureau, due in April, could show Knightville no longer qualifies for CDBG funding as a low- to moderate-income area.

If that’s the case, Warren said she could conduct her own survey work in time for the submission to HUD by Cumberland County commissioners in May. But the potential ineligibility led councilors to wonder if alternative uses for the funds should be discussed before they voted on the plan.

Mayor Claude Morgan said he did not want to micromanage the CADC, which recommended how the funds would be used. If the GWI allocation does not happen, he said, the money can be held for future use.

In all, the CADC, led by Anton Hoecker, granted 12 of 14 funding requests first reviewed Feb. 6 after applications were made available in November 2018.

Of the 12, 10 received the requested amounts. The Opportunity Alliance Resource Hub in Redbank sought $25,000 and was allocated $22,400.

Conversely, the committee allocated $85,600 for planning and improvements to the athletic fields at Redbank, where the city had sought $67,500.

The committee provided no funding for a new kitchen at The Point Community Center, which is part of the East Point Christian Church on Clarks Pond Parkway. The church had sought $438,000, and is eligible for CDBG funding if the kitchen is not used for religious services.

The committee also turned down a $17,000 request from the city Parks and Recreation Department for a new van.

The city Planning & Development Department was the applicant for the CDBG funding for Knightville broadband expansion.

The extension of fiber optic cable to the neighborhood continues a city partnership launched with GWI in 2014. Municipal buildings and city schools have been connected, with about $270,000 spent so far, city Finance Director Greg L’Heureux said.

The base service rate would be about $60 per month, GWI CEO Fletcher Kittredge said. GWI also allows open access to the network for other providers.

Councilor Misha Pride said the service expansion is not incompatible with his hope to create a municipally owned broadband network, and should also continue in case his hopes are not feasible.

A CDBG allocation of $100,000 was recommended to support development of the South Portland Housing Development Corporation’s Thornton Heights Commons. The new housing would have 33 of 42 units restricted to people earning 60 percent or less of the area median income.

SPHDC was also recommended to receive $50,000 for infrastructure work at 31 Sunset Ave. The land will eventually be sold to Habitat for Humanity to build eight homes.

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Ocean Street in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood, where rising incomes could disqualify the area for a federal grant to subsidize expansion of broadband internet service.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.