Imagine lightning-fast Internet widely available in a place where high-tech businesses, drawn by the ability to quickly transmit massive volumes of data, offer high-paying jobs.
Officials hope Riverside County can become that place. A new initiative seeks to encourage the development of high-speed broadband Internet service throughout the county to lure companies and bridge a digital divide that leads to uneven online access for residents.
The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Sept. 20 approved paying law firm Best Best & Krieger $250,000 to lay the groundwork for a private investment pitch to greatly enhance the county’s Internet infrastructure. The idea is to make it easy for Internet service providers to build a network on steroids that surpasses what other counties offer.
The item to pay BB&K for legal counsel and related work passed 5-0, but not before Supervisor Kevin Jeffries expressed skepticism about whether the initiative, dubbed “RIVCOconnect,” should be a top priority.
RIVCOconnect seeks to solve what officials describe as a lack of access to high-speed broadband. Almost 100,000 county residents have no access to high-speed broadband, and service is limited to 20 percent of the county, according to a county staff report.
The initiative also is seen as an economic development tool. “Attracting and retaining businesses, especially those related to technology that also, in turn, pay higher living wages, is paramount to providing for the overall well-being of our residents,” the staff report read.
RIVCOconnect does not call for the county to spend anything to enhance high-speed broadband, nor would the county be responsible for maintaining the network. Rather, the county’s role is to join forces with cities and tribal governments to roll out the red carpet for private investment by streamlining the permit process, for example.
It could cost as much as $2 billion to offer the type of universal broadband service envisioned by RIVCOconnect, said county Chief Information Officer Steve Reneker.
‘LEAP OF FAITH’
While he supports the RIVCOconnect concept in general, Jeffries noted that the county already faces a budget crunch, with ongoing revenue not keeping up with new, fixed expenses. A private consultant, KPMG, is studying county government to find efficiencies and savings, and Jeffries worried the initiative could interfere with that effort.
“I need you to walk me (away from) the cliff here,” he told Reneker. “I don’t know why this is more important, or has risen to be more important, as resolving our budget challenges (and) our reorganization that KPMG is going to come through with.”
He later added: “I have a number of unincorporated communities that would love to have water service before they worry about their Internet service. They’d love to have water lines in their streets. In fact, they’d love to have streets.”
The county’s permit process is burdensome, Jeffries said.
“Singling this out as the one and only area where we’re going to streamline the permit process so that businesses can come here and then get stuck in the queue for the permitting process for three, four, five or six years to get permits ... we’re not fixing it,” he said.
While acknowledging Jeffries’ concerns, Supervisor Chuck Washington said he was intrigued by the opportunity.
“I guess there is a leap of faith to get behind this,” Washington said. “It certainly scares us if we have open-ended expenses required … What I try to look for are good investments of our taxpayer dollars where we can get value.”
Supervisor John Benoit said Burbank’s investment in high-speed Internet is credited with convincing Disney and other companies to invest or expand in the city. Access to high-speed Internet was a factor in the California Air Resources Board’s decision to build a $366 million facility in Riverside, Benoit added.
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When the Lakeland Village Community Advisory Council holds its regular monthly meeting next week, it won’t be at some makeshift locale as it has in the past.The group’s session at 6 p.m. Wednesday will mark the first event ever to be held at what will be its permanent home, the newly christened Lakeland Village Community Center.
“I think it’s a dream come true,” said local activist Karen Snyder, whose husband, Jim, sits on the advisory council. “I think this is one of the best things that has happened in Lakeland Village in many, many decades. ”Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said he anticipates Wednesday’s occasion to be celebrated with a ceremony. “It’s looking really good,” he said of the facility. “It’s coming along very nicely.”
Jeffries spearheaded the effort to rehabilitate the old Butterfield Elementary School on Grand Avenue so it could host public events and activities for adults and youths. At his request, the county bought the 18.5-acre property for $2.1 million last February from the Lake Elsinore Unified School District, which shut the school down in 2010. The school required extensive rehabilitation through the county Regional Park and Open Space District.
Jeffries’ aide Kristen Huyck said she anticipates the the center’s doors will be opened to the public on a regular basis sometime in April. “The main building has made great progress and is slowly transforming from an elementary school into a full-blown and multifaceted community center,” she said. “The transformation that has occurred this last year is pretty astounding and progress is made every day. It’s a welcoming environment.”
Besides an auditorium, the building will feature a children’s area, fitness room, conference room and adult room for reading and relaxing, Huyck said. Work is continuing on developing the rest of the property as a park, including the improvement of ball fields and basketball courts. Eventually, a smaller building will be fixed up so the supervisor can open an office there.
Volunteers, including the Snyders, are bouncing around ideas on what kind of activities can be hosted on the campus. “Once you really start sitting down and thinking about all the possibilities, your head starts spinning because it’s so exciting,” Karen Snyder said.
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