Berrien County hears update on tower project

Published 2:22 pm Thursday, February 24, 2022

ST. JOSEPH – Berrien County Commissioners heard an update about plans for a south county communications tower at Thursday’s county board meeting. The meeting was held at the Berrien County Administration Center in St. Joseph as well as being livestreamed on the county’s YouTube channel.

Berrien County Administrator Brian Dissette and Berrien County Commissioner Jim Curran both spoke about the tower project during the meeting. County officials have been working on the project for several months, stressing the need for a south county tower to improve emergency radio reception and communications along the state line.

The county received a $5 million state grant to help pay for the tower project last fall. The entire project is expected to cost $7.8 million, with the remaining money coming from county American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Curran said Thursday that the location that has been decided on for the new tower is in Buchanan and owned by American Electric Power. “It’s such a perfect place for the tower with the right elevation,” he said.

Dissette said the county has been holding meetings every other week with Buchanan officials to bring the project to fruition. He said the next steps will include sitting down with Pearson Construction to go over budget estimates for the project.

County officials will also be continuing ongoing discussions with AEP and the city of Buchanan on everything from building acquisition to submitting planning and zoning applications to the city. “It’s something the county board and the staff are excited about,” he said.

In a related matter, Curran said that other projects to improve cross border communications between Indiana and Michigan are moving forward.

“Both states have 800 megahertz systems but they can’t communicate with each other,” he said. “We’re working with Indiana to be able to communicate with their towers.”

He told fellow commissioners that there has been movement in that area with the Clay Township fire department now on the Michigan 800 megahertz system. Clay Township is just south of Niles on the Indiana side of the state line. Curran said three or four other Indiana departments are close to being connected to the Michigan system.

Thursday’s meeting also featured a presentation and discussion about opportunities to expand broadband services in the county. Southwest Michigan Planning Commissioner Director John Egelhaaf told commissioners about the tool his organization has developed to help residents know more about the issue.

He said the new tool which he called a “story map” will soon be available via a link on the county’s website. It will give people both the background of what the county has done over the last three or four years about broadband including the Merit survey done last year as well as what’s happening now.

He reported that grants have already been awarded to expand broadband service in the county. “There are three different programs where grants have been given to providers who will provide internet services to underserved areas,” he said. “If people don’t have broadband currently, it could be coming soon.”

“I want to thank you for your work to put something together that is user friendly and something we can use as a tool as we go out to communities,” Commissioner Teri Freehling said. She is chairwoman of the county’s BC Bits broadband taskforce.

Curran is also on that committee.

“We worked on this before it was popular and we now have other counties coming to us and asking how e got here,” he said. “It’s really an exciting time, a lot of federal and state grant dollars are available since we’ve done this work. We are well positioned to receive grants.”

“Berrien County was talking about broadband before it was cool,” fellow commissioner and BC Bits member Ezra Scott said. “I want to thank the board for making this a priority and now others are looking to us for how to start broadband.”

County commissioners have said previously that they plan to set aside $6 million or more of the county’s $30 million in ARPA funds to partner with local townships to expand broadband. They approved an application for townships to apply for some of those funds earlier this month.