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Source: United States House of Representatives – Congressman James Comer (1st District of Kentucky)

WK&T will use $11,797,050 in United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA) grant funds provided through the federal ReConnect Program to extend its fiber optic network and connect more than 8,000 people to businesses, schools, health care facilities and other agencies in Graves County and in Alexander, Union, Pulaski, Johnson and Massac counties in Illinois.

The announcement was made at WK&T’s Tech Park near Hickory in Graves County. It is the largest ReConnect grant of five administered through the USDA.

“Our fiber is going to cover all the areas of Graves County that we already serve and go and provide services to everything outside the city limits of Mayfield,” said WK&T CEO Trevor Bonnstetter. The telecommunications provider offers service in Graves, Carlisle, Calloway and Marshall counties in Kentucky, as well as counties in Tennessee and Alabama. This is the cooperative’s first venture into Illinois.

In 2018, Congress provided $600 million to USDA to expand broadband infrastructure and services to rural areas of the country through ReConnect. The USDA invested nearly $700 million to get 167,000 homes and 17,000 rural small businesses and farms broadband connections in its first round. In the second round this year, the department received 172 applications for $1.57 billion.

Kentucky State Director for USDA Rural Development Hilda Gay Legg noted that President Donald Trump’s administration had invested $163.4 million in broadband for rural Kentucky and likened it to the Rural Electrification Administration of the 1930s.

“That’s the reason we had the REA because the further out you are from a cluster of people, it costs you more and you have fewer customers at end of the line,” she said. “We’ve always been about the end of the line, whether electrification or the old fashioned telephone services or water projects. It’s about getting to where customers are in rural communities.”

First District U.S. Congressman James Comer was also on hand and praised the partnership between the Graves County Fiscal Court and WK&T.

“It’s very competitive trying to get this broadband money, but you all stood out,” he said.

Comer added that broadband connectivity is a recurring issue he hears in his 35-county district and said it is important for the future of Kentucky and rural America.

“If we’re going to keep our best and brightest in rural Kentucky, we’re going to have to have broadband, not just for economic development but for residential development because these young people aren’t going to live somewhere they can’t get Netflix,” Comer said. “With virtual learning and the virtual community, you have to have broadband and there are so many blank areas in Kentucky. I’m glad to see Graves County fill in some voids.”

Bonnstetter said the build-out project for Graves County is nearly $13 million with the county’s fiscal court agreeing to pay $4.5 million over 30 years. With the partnership with WK&T, the cooperative is continually looking for additional grant opportunities.

Graves County Judge-Executive Jesse Perry thanked the work of his county commissioners, Comer, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and State Rep. Richard Heath for their support.

“At a much needed time, it couldn’t be more of a blessing for the county,” Perry said.

And with the COVID-19 pandemic, Bonnstetter said it made fiber optic broadband internet not just a want but a need.

“People want it yesterday because of COVID and we’re working fast as can to get it there.”

Earlier, the federal and state groups announced a $7.585 million USDA Rural Development investment for a new 18,500-square-foot cooperative extension building. The new location will be along U.S. 45 North of Mayfield and will feature boardrooms, demonstration kitchens, meeting rooms, audio and video capabilities, handicap-accessible, and larger parking area.

Extension board chair Susie Rozzell Fenwick said the goal is to be in their new Graves County Extension Office by September 2021.

The current location is at 251 W. Houseman St. Fenwick said the extension staff is “long past due” for a new office and site.

“I’ve been all over the state and seen all kinds of facilities and really could not believe we’ve worked as efficiently as we have here. But it’s time to move on with a better facility,” she said. “The technology will be state of the art that anybody from 6 to 86 can use it. It’s going to be a campus there.”

Legg, who made the announcement, credited local leaders’ efforts, including former State Rep. Fred Nesler’s, to secure funding for the building and rural development’s impact in Graves County through affordable housing, business investments and community programs. The loan will run over 40 years at a 2.1% interest rate.

“The more we can invest and ring their hard-earned tax dollar back home to that local community here in Graves County, then the more return we get,” she said. “When we bring it back home, they’re making the community stronger and we’re making our rural commonwealth better and our rural America better.”

Rep. Comer and Rep. Heath were also at the extension site announcement.