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Senators and staffers visit Blue Earth on broadband

By Staff | Feb 18, 2018

James Beattie, Bill Eckles, Peder Kjeseth and Josh Syrjamaki in the Bevcomm control room after their meeting on Feb. 12.

Minnesota’s First Congressional District representative Tim Walz wants to know about the major issues affecting Faribault County. On Monday, Feb. 12, he took a big leap forward towards accomplishing that goal.

Two of Walz’s representatives, chief of staff Josh Syrjamaki and agriculture and energy outreach director Peder Kjeseth, made two stops in Blue Earth last Monday at Bevcomm and the United Hospital District. Their objective was to gauge the pulse of local businesses, as well as to discuss health care concerns within the county.

“We’re here to listen and learn and get advice and direction, especially as it relates to what’s happening federally,” said Syrjamaki. “We want to leave here with some marching orders that we can bring back to Congressman Walz.”

As part of their visit, Syrjamaki and Kjeseth met with CEO of United Health District, Rick Ash, as well as Chief Nursing Officer Candace Arends. Discussion regarding the lack of rural resources for the growing demand of mental health needs was a key point of emphasis for Ash and Arends during the meeting.

“There are less and less available in-patient beds for the mental health patients. We are impacted because we are the crisis center for any health issue,” Arends said. “Sometimes it takes us up to 30 hours to find a bed for patients in our emergency room. It’s a real human resource depletion for our volunteer ambulance crew.”

The high cost of operation including technology and hospital supplies were also among the main areas of concern raised by both health care professionals. Negotiating with insurance companies, as well as recruitment and retention of qualified medical personnel are also challenges currently facing UHD.

After the discussion, Syrjamaki indicated continuous dialog with rural health care leaders will help lead to solutions in the future.

“These are the professionals that get a first-hand look on the day-to-day operations of the health care industry,” Syrjamaki said. “It’s important to let them know they have a voice and we are listening to their concerns. We want to tap into local expertise on a variety of different issues.”

Syrjamaki and Kjeseth also met with Bevcomm CEO Bill Eckles and director of government relations James Beattie during their tour of Blue Earth.

Eckles and Beattie informed the group of representatives of the growing need for broadband service within rural communities. Eckles explained how high-speed Internet access can help expand the economy in rural areas.

“When you’re talking about the potential to retain younger generations, you seemingly can’t have that conversation without touching on the issues of broadband,” Eckles explained. “Broadband opens up a town like Frost or Kiester to the world. This benefits not only the local economy, but the global economy as well.”

Efforts to serve rural customers presents its own set of obstacles. Beattie cited the large distances between broadband users in remote areas as a major hurdle in getting service out to Bevcomm customers.

However, Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program has helped companies like Bevcomm serve these kinds of customers. In 2017, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development announced $26 million in grants were awarded to 39 broadband projects statewide.

“That is the difference between making these projects economically viable,” Beattie said.

“If we’ve got three to four customers per square mile in some of the more remote areas, the investment of time in trying to get there makes it difficult,” he added.

With Congressman Walz retiring at the end of this year, Syrjamaki and Kjeseth stressed the importance of compiling this information to ensure informed decisions are made for the future of Faribault County.

“We’re trying to finish strong as a congressional office so that we can pass along some of that key information to the next member of congress,” said Syrjamaki.

State Senator Carla Nelson toured Blue Earth-based Bevcomm on Feb. 7. Nelson serves as chair of the Minnesota Senate’s powerful E-12 Finance Committee. She has also announced her candidacy for the U.S. Congress, running for the seat that is being vacated by Walz.

“With telecom issues in rural Minnesota an increasingly hot topic at the State Capitol and elsewhere, we were delighted to welcome Sen. Nelson as she took a first-hand look at our operation to learn more about the industry and its impact on our region and our state,” Eckles added.