By Brandon Martin
The Henry County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a new franchise agreement between the county and Comcast/Xfinity during a July 28 Board of Supervisors meeting.
As part of the agreement, Comcast has agreed to construct an expansion of its network in Henry County and commence construction on two projects within the next year.
One expansion will be on J.S. Holland Road in the Horsepasture District. The second will be along Sandy River Road in the Iriswood District.
In addition, the new franchise agreement calls for Comcast to expand its network when neighborhood density reaches 20 homes per linear mile. Under the old agreement the density was 30 homes.
“The prior agreement has expired. It’s been expired for many, many years,” County Attorney George Lyle said. “It’s still probably a better agreement than if we went to court and disputed then had some other agreement that the state says can happen if you never reach an agreement.”
Jim Adams, chairman of the board, clarified that the franchise agreement applied to television only,
Debra Buchanan, vice chairman, asked if the current pandemic would affect timing of the expansion, which is supposed to be completed within the year per the agreement.
Nathan Doherty, who works in governmental affairs for Comcast and attended the meeting to field questions from the supervisors, said “We would begin as soon as possible after the agreement is complete.”
He added that the year gives time to work out any permitting issues that may arise.
Another provision in the agreement is that Comcast will no longer be required to maintain a customer service center open to the public in Martinsville and Henry County. Comcast has indicated it intends to close the location on Commonwealth Boulevard for payments and equipment exchange, leaving the Comcast/Xfinity store at Coleman Marketplace in Danville as the closest payment and equipment exchange location.
During a Feb. 25 public hearing on the matter, some residents voiced their concern with the closing of the facility.
Ridgeway resident Mary Martin spoke against the closing.
“I think the decision to close the local store is a horrible idea. You’ve got a lot of seniors in this area who have never touched a computer. They get their checkbook, they write checks and they pay their bills. They are faithful every month,” she said at the time.
“We shouldn’t have to pay to go to Danville to pick up a box because they are constantly changing things,” she said. “You have to upgrade to this. You’ve got to have that. In this area, that’s just not right.”
While the franchise agreement applies only to video and cable, Iriswood Supervisor Dr. J. David Martin also broached the topic of broadband in the area.
“Our environment has changed. Our school system is going to a virtual delivery system and we have a county in which that internet service is not what it should be,” Dr. J. David Martin said.
“Another piece, as part of our coronavirus response, is access to our WIFI hotspots,” Doherty said. “Since the spring, we have been providing access to customers and non-customers for free. We were initially going to have that go through the summer weeks. We just recently extended that access until the end of the year.”
Doherty said a map of the hotspots is available on the Xfinity website. “You can put in an address and see where those open hotspots are,” he said.
After being asked about expansion of some of the coverage areas of the hotspots, Doherty said he would coordinate with Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer about how to best accommodate student needs.
Deputy County Administrator Dale Wagoner provided information by the county to expand broadband.
“There are grant funds available to expand broadband into rural areas,” Wagoner said. “We have really good broadband service here through Mid-Atlantic Broadband which services most of our commercial centers.”
He said this helps when advertising the area to companies that would be interested in setting up facilities in the area.
“Where we do have gaps are primarily on the residential end, and those gaps, right now, are primarily filled through the Comcast/Xfinity services,” Wagoner said.
Initially when the county approached boards like the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, “we were told early on, from a rural standpoint, we are in really good shape. We were low to the bottom” in comparison to other rural localities, he said.
Based on a coverage map provided by the state, Wagoner said comparatively “Henry County is leaps and bounds better off for broadband than our neighbors. We have broadband in twice as many places as Patrick County, Franklin County and Pittsylvania County. When they are looking at divvying up grant funds, we are not at the top of the list for that.”
Because of this, Wagoner said the county has been working with the Harvest Foundation to develop a study to discern where improvements are most needed.
“We’d like to apply through the Appalachian Regional Commission” and other entities about funding the study. “We’ve also talked to the Harvest Foundation about fronting that money so we can move on it faster. Once we get that study, we will then be able to work with providers who can put out a request for proposal so they can expand into those neighborhoods and we can get the most bang for the buck.”
“I’m excited about where you are and what you are going to do,” David Martin said. “It’s just frustrating to me, as a former school person, to know that our students are going to be back in the school in the fall and it’s going to be a virtual environment and not every kid is going to be treated equally. That’s a hard pill for me to swallow because it’s all about equal opportunities for all of our kids, and it’s not going to be equal. We are going to do the best we can, but I just want to know we are doing everything we possibly can.”
In other matters presented, the board:
*Heard a presentation on economic development from Mark Heath, president/CEO of the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corporation.
*Heard an update on delinquent tax collection efforts from County Treasurer Scott Grindstaff.
*Appropriated the carryover of fiscal year (FY) 2020 emergency funds in the amount of $10,206.33 to the FY’21 budget. The funds will be used to assist residents with emergency
needs as utility companies resume disconnecting of services.
*Awarded a contract in the amount of $32,904 to Prillaman Landscape Dimensions, Inc. for landscaping and turf maintenance at Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre during FY 2021.
*Appropriated $3,530 received from the Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services, Rescue Squad Assistance Fund grant program. The grant will be used to purchase EMS equipment. The required 50 percent match for this grant is included in the FY’21 operating budget.
*Adopted a resolution regarding the submission of projects for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Smart Scale program. The first project proposes to relocate 2500 feet of the northbound lanes of U.S. 220, Virginia Avenue, north of Bassett Forks, to improve the vertical and horizontal alignments. The second project proposes to reconstruct the intersection of U.S. 220 South (Greensboro Rd) and SR87 (Morehead Ave) using a “Continuous Green T” design to more efficiently and safely move traffic through this intersection. The third project proposes to widen SR930, Dogwood Drive to accommodate both left and right turn lanes onto U.S. 58, A.L. Philpott Highway, to relieve congestion during certain periods of the day, and to implement access management designs into the adjoining convenience store/gas station.
*Set a public hearing on Aug. 25 to consider changes to the courthouse and courtroom security fees, from $10 to $20.
*Adopted a resolution to request that a referendum, which would increase local sales and use tax by one percent to pay for school construction costs, be added to the November ballot. If the matter is approved by voters, the board then must advertise and hold a public hearing, adopt an ordinance imposing the new tax and notify the Virginia Tax Commissioner.
*Appointed Mike Ward to the Roanoke River Basin Association.
*Held a public hearing and approved a rezoning application for property that is located at 86 Friendship Dr. in the Blackberry District. The applicant intends to replace the site built home on the property with a single wide manufactured home.
*Held a public hearing and approved an amendment to the budget, appropriating an additional $2,098,231.94 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – Elementary and Secondary School funds. The school board has indicated it will use the funds to support essential instructional/maintenance supplies and personnel costs over the next two years.
*Held a public hearing and adopted changes to the county procurement ordinance to
better align it with the Procurement Act of the Code of Virginia.
*Set a public comment period, to expire in 30 days, to appropriate $13,797 in JAG grant funds for the Sheriff’s office.