A faded wooden sign tacked on the Southport Island town hall says you have to pay 3 cents to ride your horse over the Townsend Gut bridge.
It was long ago, no one is sure of the date, but it notes the rates for carriages, sleighs, sheep, and swine. The bridge was free if you were going to church on the Sabbath.
I suppose long ago, Southport islanders gathered in this same hall to chew over the proposals to lower or (perish the thought) raise bridge tolls. Last Wednesday, about 50 Southport islanders gathered in the old town hall to chew over municipal costs.
The 2022 islanders were not talking about horses, carriages and sheep. This time they chewed over gigabytes, upload and download speeds, and blazing internet speed. This meeting involved a town-owned broadband internet network and seven-figure costs.
The discussion began a year ago at a special town meeting when island voters authorized the board of selectmen to spend $2.1 million to bring broadband to the town. The vote was 95 to 86.
So far, the town has borrowed $1.5 million and spent some $640,000 in startup costs for materials, lawyers, insurance and pole rental.
Since that time, it received a $400,000 state ConnectMe grant, $63,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds from the feds and $25,000 from Island Institute.The town is seeking additional grants and awards.
Earlier in the year, a group opposed to the project circulated a petition where 141 residents asked the selectmen to reverse their earlier charge. The town will revisit the question at a special town meeting on July 28.
Opponents from away include Maine Policy Institute, a conservative lobbying group. Its website views government-owned internet networks as a bureaucratic government giveaway. “Honestly, this whole scheme reeks,” said the website.
Tom Myette, one of the chief local opponents, complained the town had sent out a faulty-worded request for proposals that did not allow the big corporate internet providers, like Spectrum, enough time to bid on the project. Selectman Gerry Gamage bristled at that assertion. He said Axiom, the successful bidder, had met the bid deadlines, and Spectrum did not, although they did ask for an extension.
Spectrum provides regular internet services to most of the town. However, despite years of complaints, they have failed to connect 21 residents. Other residents have complained of poor Spectrum service.
“For the last six years, I have been trying to get Spectrum to provide internet service to my house. They said no,” said Maureen Kinsey.
“They came to the house about three weeks ago and said they would have to use more than 16 phone poles to bring the service to my house. I asked how much that would cost. The guy said that was not his department.”
A Spectrum representative, Melinda Kinney, was at the meeting. She said her firm is working on costs, but was unable to provide figures. She said she would be glad to work with the town on the project. After the meeting, about a half dozen islanders asked her to help them with their service problems.
Much of the recent discussion surrounded the way the town would fund the project. Gamage said they needed about 320 customers to sign up to service the $1.5 million loan. So far, 135 have subscribed, according to Mark Ouellette, president of Axion Technologies.
Kinsey predicted many summer residents would sign up for the service, a claim disputed by opponents. For the record, the 2020 federal Census says Southport has 963 homes. Of that number, 673 are vacant, while 290 are occupied. Most of the vacant homes are summer cottages.
Will enough summer customers sign up for the proposed service? That is the big question. One resident said if the project goes forward, the proof will be in the pudding, and if the town cancels it, the town will be out a lot of money.
So, if Southport voters vote to scotch the town’s broadband project, what will happen? The town will have to give back $500,000 and taxpayers will be on the hook for some $640,000.
During the 90-minute meeting, some islanders admitted no one addressed what may be the real reason this small town embarked on a $2 million broadband project. You can mark it up to the strong sense of Maine islander cussedness and a resentment of the big corporation and service complaints. For years, one resident said, the town had longstanding issues with Spectrum and previous internet service providers. They finally got fed up with the providers from away.
No one says it out loud, but some admit this project is the town’s way of giving the proverbial dynamic digit to the big corporate guys.