If Hermiston hopes to continue to grow and attract new businesses, it is going to have to invest in digital infrastructure. That was the message given Monday night during a Hermiston City Council work session.
The council gave city staff approval to continue with its assessment of the community’s digital infrastructure needs with the hope that a final recommendation will come next February during the city staff annual retreat.
“If we want to continue to grow and for our constituents to have adequate digital services, we have to move forward,” said Mayor Dave Drotzmann. “I don’t see any other option. If we can find community partners to share in the costs, that would be awesome, but not a necessity.”
Nate Rivera, general manager of Hermiston Energy Services, has been working with City Manager Byron Smith to determine where Hermiston is currently and where it needs to be to meet the city’s future needs.
Currently, the city spends just under $72,000 annually on existing digital telecom services. A preliminary estimate puts that annual cost at around $368,000 if all city facilities were digitally connected, plus another $400,000 to maintain the infrastructure on an annual basis.
Rivera said the city does not have that money in the budget and that some of the needs identified by city staff may have to be cut. If so and by how much remains to be seen.
But, he said, with the upgraded infrastructure, it will allow the city to expand its services as the population grows over time. Rivera said staff plans to look into partnerships to cut costs and pointed out that some revenue could be recouped through an increased tax base as new businesses and residents move to the city.
Rivera said a failure to act would limit the city’s ability in the future to provide reliable broadband services to all its residents, retain and attract new businesses and residents, and could mean a reduction in the city’s tax base as jobs and people move out of town.
In the coming months, Rivera and staff will conduct a market assessment that will allow the city to give broadband providers the data needed to show it would be a good investment to partner with the city.
Councilor Nancy Peterson said the pandemic showed how critical it is to have reliable broadband service as many people were forced to work from home. Reliable service also means people can live in Hermiston while working remotely in another city.
“This is the way of the future,” she said.
Drotzmann said it’s the city’s responsibility to help spur economic development.
“I’m a big believer that government should provide the backbone by which economic development grows off of,” he said. “This is just another kind of backbone.”
Drotzmann also said the city is not looking to become broadband providers, but just to build an infrastructure that existing providers can use.