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DED focuses ARPA funds on broadband infrastructure 

Missouri’s Department of Economic Development (DED) is heading into the new year with an emphasis on broadband through a planned investment from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) leaders say would expand access and reliability for rural and urban areas alike.

Gov. Mike Parson unveiled plans for a historic $400 million broadband investment through ARPA in August while DED applied for an additional $56 million from the federal government to support nearly two dozen projects supporting more than 17,000 businesses, residences, and other institutions. 

DED Strategy and Performance Division Director Paul Eisenstein said the money would be put toward expanding internet access to unserved areas, technical assistance, and investments in new connection methods, including modified cell phone towers for areas where fiber internet may not be an option. 

“We’re at a once-in-a-generation opportunity with broadband development in Missouri with these federal resources coming to bear,” Eisenstein said during a recent virtual presentation. “Obviously it’s wonderful for rural Missouri, but it’s also going to be really good and powerful for urban and suburban Missouri as well.”

Eisenstein joined DED Acting Director Maggie Kost and Director of Federal Initiatives Shad Burner on the webinar outlining the state’s priorities for reporters and community leaders last week. 

Broadband investments have been a focus of the legislature as well: The House Special Interim Committee on Broadband Development received testimony from internet providers and other stakeholders in the months since session concluded and will file a report with its findings at the beginning of the year. 

The department bid farewell to Office of Broadband Development Director Tim Arbeiter, who led the discussion on bridging the digital divide for several years, earlier this month. Eisenstein said a replacement had been chosen and will take on the role early next year.

Parson sought proposals from his Cabinet and state agencies for Missouri’s $2.6 billion allocation from the ARPA package signed into law by President Joe Biden earlier this year. Priorities identified in the intervening months included broadband, workforce development, community development, small business support, water and sewer infrastructure, site development, and tourism.  

While these funds will be distributed through state agencies, affected communities will also be required to match funds to some degree on many projects. DED Acting Director Maggie Kost said local governments could contribute through local ARPA allotments and other programs.

“Many of the state’s programs that are going to be proposed during the State of the State and that the Governor’s Office is going to prioritize are going to require a strong local match,” Kost said. “Be really paying attention when the governor releases his budget in January to where you could leverage your local funds and pair that match with state economic development programs and funds and ARPA priorities to really get the most out of the funding that’s going to be coming down.” 

Other proposed investments include $2.7 million from the Department of Natural Resources’ fund for the Rock Island Corridor, which the state took ownership of earlier this month. The defunct railway running through mid-Missouri is set to be converted to a walking and biking trail. Around $5.7 million is set to be earmarked for state parks overall. 

The executive branch also planned to put $56 million toward entrepreneurs, with $4 million sought to bolster small businesses. DED also hopes to set aside $1 million for local industrial site developments grants expected to benefit up to a dozen communities, according to the presentation. 

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) recently submitted a plan with the federal government to use its nearly $13 million allotment to develop software to help local education agencies identify the homeless status of families and provide competitive grants for areas with a high concentration of homeless students. The plan has received bipartisan support from the legislature’s budget leaders. 

DESE also plans to use ARPA grants for teacher recruitment and retention efforts amid a statewide education staffing shortage. 

Each department’s allocation is ultimately subject to appropriation by lawmakers. Funds will be available July 1, 2022, and must be allocated by 2024. The state must use its allotment by the end of 2026.

The 2022 legislative session begins on Jan. 5. Parson will officially outline his budgetary priorities two weeks later during his annual State of the State address which is also expected to cover broadband access.