Blackwater Virginia
A major telecommunications facility in Blackwater.

Broadband Disconnect in Blackwater Virginia

by Lewis Loflin

Telecommunication or high speed internet has become the new catch phrase for government grants. Touted as economic development, it's taken on faith that high speed broadband connections into poor rural communities will "revitalize" economies.

The only problem is there's no proof of that anywhere in Southwest, Virginia where I live. It hasn't worked in the Bristol, Virginia area where our local power company, Bristol Virginia Utilities, has spent ten of millions in grants promising new jobs and industry. 2010 Census figures show Bristol, Virginia lost almost one-fourth of its private sector industry since 2000 when the broadband was installed since 2000. I've written LENOWISCO directly and asked for proof of their claims with a specific list of jobs, they refuse to answer.

Don't ever say proven failure stops the flow of tax dollars and government waste. On September 2010 former Congressman Rich Boucher (he lost re-election two months later) announced about $45 million in new Federal loans/grants and stimulus funds for more broadband development in what is called the LENOWISCO development area. This was supposed to create about 170 mostly temporary jobs over three years. That's a cost of $265,000 per job.

Now LENOWISCO and their private sector partner that they hoped to hand millions of tax dollars to are fighting with each other and the grants might not materialize. But that aside, let's look at a project LENOWISCO and their pals at Sunset Digital cooked up that has produced nothing. That failure is called 'Connect Blackwater' or more aptly a disconnect from reality.

Blackwater, Virginia is a remote community in Lee County, Virginia. Its postal zip code list about 700 people if we include those in the corner of neighboring Scott County. It's listed as an unincorporated village and is named after a local creek. In 2008 the community received from now former Congressman Rick Boucher a federal grant of $759,600 to connect "90 residents and businesses now have access to high-speed Internet services." This led to the creation of the Blackwater Community Computer Center.

This "center" will "provide free high speed Internet access to residents at convenient times." They also got a $125,000 in funding for the Connect Blackwater project from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission. Total cost was $884,600. The "village" of Blackwater doesn't exist.

My wife and I on the first week of March 2011 went on a tour of Blackwater to see what this community was really about. We drove down US 23 from Gate City Virginia towards Duffield and turned left towards Fairview. We ended up passing through the Fairfield Community, past Fairview School, and got directions to Blackwater.

It turned out the mailing address was Blackwater, but Blackwater was still miles away. The easiest way to get there was through Kyle's Ford across the Tennessee State line. There we stopped at a bait shop and convenience store right next to a bridge that spanned the Clinch River.

The region had just been hit with a lot of heavy rain and many of the fields we passed were still flooded as they snaked along the Clinch River. The place was very beautiful even in March with little green to be seen. We did see the first yellow Easter flowers heralding the approach of warmer weather. I was surprised at the amount of level farmland along our route.

After leaving Kyle's Ford on Route 70 back into Virginia we saw almost nothing other than an occasional house. In many cases the houses were empty or in disrepair much like the Fairview Country Store we got directions form. After passing miles of cows and an occasional house we finally found the "village" of Blackwater, Virginia.

Blackwater consisted of nothing more than a single small road sign, and a block building holding the post office and their almost $1 million computer center. The only other structure even close by was a barn across the road. There was one vehicle parked at the center, one behind the post office.

Fairview Country Store
This was the only functioning business we saw on the Virginia side of the line in Fairview. Guess they need broadband to expand their business.

Taxpayer Rip Off

The first question besides the absence of any real town called Blackwater is why the US Department of Agriculture is even involved with a computer center to begin with? What the heck was the purpose of this? To quote the Blackwater official website:

The unincorporated village of Blackwater is a small, rural community in Lee County, Virginia. The Connect Blackwater project will expand the LENOWISCO Rural Area Network fiber optic backbone regional infrastructure to deploy affordable broadband in the Blackwater area, an area where broadband is unavailable.

So what? LENOWISCO is a pseudo-government agency that is supposed to promoting economic development. It has partnered under a questionable system in Virginia known as "public-private partnerships" (PPP) with what started out as I understand a small backwoods cable company now called Sunset Communications to string broadband across its service area. Their mission is similar to that of the Virginia Tobacco Commission whose mission statement is to quote,

Economic revitalization can be defined for the tobacco-dependent communities in Virginia as a more stable, diversified, and growing economy that leads to higher living standards. Consequently, metrics are needed to measure the following four terms:

1. More Stable - less fluctuations during recessions as well as expansions in the business cycle

2. More Diversified - less dependence on volatile industries or one or two industries

3. Growing Economy - increasing employment

4. Higher Living Standards - increases in annual average wages that reduce the gap with the state and/or nation

Nothing in this Connect Blackwater project could be considered economic development except to a government idiot simply spending grants. And LENOWISCO has been handing Sunset millions in grants. Three years later I saw no evidence of economic anything in Blackwater other than someone's building got a free fix-up and ten computer workstations. Part of this fiber optic was to hookup the local volunteer fire department, but when I asked what that was supposed to accomplish, nobody could tell me. They said the fire dept. didn't need it.

To further quote the official website:

As part of the Connect Blackwater project, local residents will help develop a Blackwater community website. By giving stories and/or pictures the residents will be taking part as well as giving ideas and suggestions...Residents will be able to join training classes for free to learn different subjects ranging from computer training to digital photography.

But how to build a website is already available at a local community college for a fraction of the cost! Now get this from their website:

To contribute website content or for more information contact:
JOAN MINOR, MANAGER
Appalachian Resources, LLC
P.O. Box 538 Rose Hill, VA 24281
(Phone)276-445-4600
(Fax)276-445-4337

This website was set up as a non-profit educational service. It is funded by government grants but the views and text displayed here are not necessarily the views of the government agencies or any of the companies or individuals involved in the making of this website.

Appalachian Resources, LLC it seems is just a post office box, but the phone number is to Abingdon Virginia: 121 Russell Rd NW Abingdon, VA 24210, a private home. Their website is at www.appalachianresources.com simply reveals this is another government grant farming organization. To quote,

Appalachian Resources is a group of talented women with diverse entrepreneurial and professional backgrounds who have formed their own consulting business. They have years of hands-on experience in: Program Planning, Administration and Evaluation, Public Relations and Marketing, Grantsmanship and Fundraising, Logo Design, Web Design and Maintenance, Policy Analysis and Strategic Planning.

None of those women even live anywhere near Scott or Lee County. Why they operate out of a post office box in the remote community of Rose Hill is beyond me. (If they have an office there I can't locate it.)

In conclusion this was about spending the grants. I found no economic benefit to the people of the community and the real winners were LENOWISCO and their consultants, contractors, and friends. The Blackwater website is www.blackwaterva.org.

For more information on Kyle's Ford see www.vacationaqt.com.

Below are some news announcements.

Blackwater Virginia barn
The only other structure in Blackwater across the road from the Computer Center.

Boucher announces $45 million broadband grant for region

September 07, 2010 Kingsport Times-News (edited)

WEBER CITY, VA. - More than $45 million in grants and loans from the federal stimulus package will provide high-speed Internet access to 7,500 homes, businesses and community institutions in four Southwest Virginia localities.

The funding also could open the Lenowisco Planning District - including the city of Norton, and Lee, Scott and Wise counties - to numerous economic development opportunities, including major telecommunications facilities and cottage industries based out of people's homes...

The broadband package consists of $31.5 million in grants and $13.6 million in low-interest loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Recovery Act Broadband Program. The money will provide new Internet connections to 24 communities in the planning district's four localities. By the time the new broadband connections are installed, Boucher said, more than 85 percent of the homes and businesses in those localities will have high-speed Internet access.

Skip Skinner, executive director of the Lenowisco Planning District Commission claims the new broadband service will allow the region's residents to run any Internet-based business, such as a Web design or hosting firm, out of their homes. They'll also be able to work jobs in such fields as accounts payable, billing and customer service that some companies are offering through a telecommuting arrangement, he said.

Paul Elswick, president of Sunset Digital Communications says by the time the project is finished, he said, Sunset Digital will have hired about 75 new employees who will build and maintain the new broadband network.

Note from webmaster: I stand corrected, that's $640,000 per job created.

Blackwater Virginia Computer center
Another view of Blackwater with the sign.

Dispute jeopardizes Internet project in Lee, Wise counties

By Wes Bunch March 1st, 2011 Kingsport Times-News

DUFFIELD - A months-long impasse between the Lenowisco Planning District Commission and Sunset Digital Communications could jeopardize a multimillion dollar expansion of broadband Internet service announced last year for Lee and Wise counties.

On Monday, Sunset Digital claimed that $20 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants and loans could be lost due to what it described as hesitation from Lenowisco. Both Sunset and Lenowisco had until Feb. 25 to submit an agreement to the federal government or risk losing the funding for good.

Sunset officials said a failure to secure the loan could directly cost over 70 jobs in both counties. "Broadband service to Lee and Wise counties has been a major economic engine over the past few years," said Paul Elswick, president of Sunset Digital Communications. "It is hard to imagine that our digital partner, Lenowisco, an organization founded for economic development, will decide to walk away from a $20.2 million award that will create new jobs to fuel our local economy. However, they need to understand that our time is up."




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