EAST ELLIJAY, Ga. – “We are extremely proud to partner with Ellijay Telephone Company to expand broadband access,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development Georgia State Director Joyce White as she announced a $4.4 million investment grant into Gilmer County through ETC.
Holding a celebratory ceremony on February 7, 2020, ETC shareholders, administrators, and a group of employees were joined by numerous officials from Georgia’s State Government and the USDA to both announce the award and celebrate the accomplishment.
As a part of the USDA’s ReConnect Pilot Program, ETC’s application over the last year has “persevered,” as said by White during the ceremony. The grant they receive will provide $4.4 million to support the construction of 90 miles of fiber-optic cable infrastructure in Gilmer County.
Jason Smith, COO of ETC, said the service extension is going to be providing “1 Gig Fiber Broadband.” He went on to add, “The total project is estimated at $5.9 million, $4.4 [million] of that will be provided by the grant and almost $1.5 [million] is provided by ETC.”
The program is set to incorporate 2,159 households, two community facilities, and an Educational facility. Additionally, there have been 25 businesses and 24 farms pre-subscribed to the service.
House Speaker David Ralston spoke at the ceremony about the great need for better internet and high-speed broadband connections as the foundation of improvements in education, transportation, and healthcare. He noted key points like telemedicine and farming as specific examples. Ralston threw his support behind the application with a letter of support for ETC during the application process. He said he wanted to salute ETC’s efforts and called the program a part of efforts to revitalize rural Georgia.
State Sen. Steve Gooch also wrote a letter of support for ETC’s application. He spoke at the ceremony of the need for the internet’s infrastructure for industry and economic development as well. Gooch said attracting new businesses and industry are among the first question when companies scout new locations. He said questions about providers, speed, reliability, and hubs are always among the initial questions interested parties would ask.
Gooch also echoed Ralston’s words about education as he shared his experience from his travels around the state hearing from community leaders. He said they told him about families in their communities when kids were sent home with homework to be done online. Parents would have to drive the kids back into town to a library or business with wifi to complete their homework assignments. Gooch said responding to these challenges is easier when private companies partner with the public interests to achieve success. Gooch said, “This is one success story, but we need thousands of others just like it.”
Parts of those challenges include the costs of preliminary and ground-work of projects like this do not compare to the number of houses or facilities reached. ETC’s Jason Smith noted these challenges as he said the estimated costs of this project reach $65,000 per mile. He said, “When you consider that many of our most rural areas have less than five homes per mile, it is easy to see why a grant plays such a vital role in broadband deployment.”
Smith went on to say that the grant award is an early step in the project. With funding, he wants ETC to move forward quickly but said the project will not happen overnight. With an estimated timeline of five years to complete the expansion. However, Smith said that ETC is hoping to reach goals to reduce that time by one year if possible.
The ReConnect Program offers funding options through loans, grants, and combinations of the two in order to facilitate broadband deployment in “areas of rural America that don’t currently have sufficient access to broadband,” according to the USDA’s website and ReConnect Program Informational.
In March 2018, the USDA reports that Congress provided $600 million to them to expand broadband infrastructure and services in Rural America. On December 13, 2018, Secretary Perdue announced the rules of his ReConnect program and the loans and grants involved. They received 146 applications between May 31, 2019, and July 12, 2019, requesting $1.4 billion in total funding.
Additionally, Perdue announced in December 2019 that the USDA will continue ReConnect through another round of applications in 2020 and will fund another $550 million through the program.
Collins Voices Disappointment Over USDA’s Rejection of Poultry Petition
WASHINGTON—Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) released the following statement in response to the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) rejection of a petition to increase line speeds in first-processing zones, where workers inspect—but do not disarticulate—birds undergoing automated cleaning:
“Evidence demonstrates that higher line speeds can preserve and even promote both worker and food safety, and I appreciate the USDA’s recognition of data indicating that inspectors can conduct effective inspections at line speeds of up to 175 birds per minute. While I am disappointed in the decision to deny the petition and the request for uncapped line speeds that would increase the competitiveness of America’s poultry industry with countries that allow higher line speeds, the USDA has committed to establishing a process to grant individual waivers for more efficient line speeds. I look forward to learning more details about the criteria necessary for these waivers and am hopeful that this will enable domestic poultry producers to foster safer, streamlined operations that benefit workers and consumers.”
Collins Petitions USDA for Improved Poultry Line Speeds
WASHINGTON—Today Congressman Doug Collins (R-Gainesville) sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging him to consider implementing policies that would make U.S. poultry processing facilities more competitive in the global marketplace.
Currently, poultry producers in South America, Asia, Canada, and Europe are safely operating at line speeds that outpace the maximum speeds allowed in American facilities, which represents a significant disadvantage to northeast Georgia’s poultry industry and America’s domestic production. Agriculture remains a vital dimension of Georgia’s economy, while poultry production generates more than $18 billion for the state economy and $10.9 billion for the Ninth District economy annually.
At their August 9th meeting, Fannin County Board of Commissioners discussed Project Chimps’ application to bring 80 chimpanzees to live in its sanctuary in Fannin County. The chimpanzees are to arrive in groups of nine to ten over the next year. In all, Project Chimps will bring approximately 240 chimpanzees over a period of five years.
The Commissioners must approve Project Chimps’ application for exotic animals before the animals can arrive in Fannin County. According to Fannin County’s Wild and Exotic Animals Ordinance: “ In the event that the Fannin County Board of Commissioners determines that such a facility cannot be operated within Fannin County, Georgia, in a manner to insure the health, safety and well-being of the citizens of this County, then the Board of Commissioners shall have the right to reject said application. The decision of the Board of Commissioners in any individual case, shall be final.”
The Commissioners voted to review the application at the next County Commissioners’ meeting on August 23rd at 6 pm in the Fannin County Courthouse.
The Commissioners’ actions came as a great surprise to Fannin residents, Project Chimps and national organizations that have been pushing for the retirement of New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzee population. New Iberia Research Center, operated by the University of Louisiana – Lafayette, currently houses the chimpanzees.
Project Chimps arrived at the Commissioners’ meeting expecting to give a presentation to the Commissioners before they voted on the application. Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson said he understood Project Chimps had obtained legal counsel. Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps, stated that they had obtained David Ralston as a consultant, not as their attorney. David Ralston represents Georgia’s 7th District, which includes Fannin County, and is Speaker of the House for Georgia General Assembly. Chairman Simonds said, “I don’t know if we can vote on it yet.” Mr. Johnson then asked County Attorney Lynn Doss what the appropriate procedures would be for speaking with Project Chimps during the meeting. Ms. Doss confirmed that the Commissioners need to send comments to her and she will pass the comments on Mr. Ralston. Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee stated he felt Project Chimps’ obtaining representation by Mr. Ralston was a push to get us [the Commissioners] to vote.
However, during Public Commentary and Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners openly discussed Project Chimps with the organization and Fannin residents in attendance.
Project Chimps’ President and CEO, Sara Baeckler Davis, spoke second during Public Commentary. She did not give her prepared presentation. Ms. Baeckler Davis did, though, give an overview of Project Chimps and how it impacts Fannin County. She spoke about safety measures in place and how the facility will provide jobs and educational opportunities for Fannin residents. She said that Project Chimps has been overwhelmed by public support from the community.
Ms. Baeckler Davis said that before coming in front of the County Commissioner, she wanted to have her federal and state permits in place since the Commission could not vote on her application without the two permits. On July 8th, Project Chimps obtained the United States Department of Agriculture permit and on July 25, it obtained the Georgia Division of Natural Resources permit.
Chad Bowers, owner of Better Building Systems, Inc. in Blue Ridge, was the first Fannin resident to speak. He is the General Contractor for Project Chimps. He stated that the organization has already brought $200,000 into his Fannin County business and he estimates around $200,000 more in the near future.
Fannin resident Jan Eaton spoke next. She pressured the Commissioners to be transparent in “what the big hold up is.” She stated that she had visited the “remarkable facility” and it is a “remarkable thing for the community.” She finished with, “What is the big problem?”
Next up was a neighbor of Project Chimps, Dawn di Lorenzo. Ms. Di Lorenzo lives on Loving Road, which is close to Project Chimps’ facility on Lowery Road. She said she is delighted the project will be in the community and she wasn’t aware there was any downside. Janice Hayes of the Cohutta Animal Clinic and Gary Steverson, owner of Blue Ridge Cotton Company, also spoke in favor of Project Chimps.
Next up was Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management at Project Chimps. He stated he has over 40 years’ experience re-socializing and integrating groups of chimpanzees. His last full-time position was for five years as Great Ape Behavioral Consultant at Kumamoto Sanctuary which is part of Kyoto University in Japan.
No one spoke against Project Chimps during Public Commentary.
During the Commissioners’ Commentary, the Commissioners questioned Ms. Baeckler Davis and also gave comments about the project, even though they stated earlier in the meeting that they would not make public comment, but pass all information through County Attorney Lynn Doss.
First off was Commission Chair Bill Simonds. The direction of his questions was about the long-term funding sources for Project Chimps. He said he understands that Project Chimps wants to bring 240 individuals that have a life span of 40-60 years. Mr. Simonds said that it was one long commitment and in 40 years people in this room won’t be around to worry about it. Ms. Baeckler Davis affirmed that the organization is not receiving any federal or state grants. However, the organization is receiving donations from private individuals, other non-profits, and New Iberia Research Center is also contributing money as part of its contract to retire the chimps at the sanctuary.
Ms. Baeckler Davis also reminded the Commissioners about the timeline for arrival of all 240 chimpanzees. The chimpanzees will arrive in social groups of 9 to 10 animals at a time. The application is for 80 chimpanzees because that is what the facility can accommodate at this time. Later groups will move in as the facility expands, which will take a total of five years. She also said that the chimpanzees must have health certification, which, according to federal regulations can only occur one-month prior to transportation from Louisiana to Georgia.
At the end of his comments about the application, Mr. Simonds stated that he did not want Fannin county residents to be stuck with caring for the chimpanzees because donations to Project Chimps ran dry.
Post-Commissioner Larry Joe Sosebee was next. His line of questioning was about the health of the animals. First, he wanted to know if the chimpanzees are newly-arrived from Africa. Then he questioned about what kind of biomedical research the chimpanzees were used for while they were at New Iberia Research Center. Ms. Baeckler Davis did not answer this questions. But, she did say that to pass health inspection, which each animal must have before coming to Fannin County, a veterinarian must state that the animals are healthy and not carriers of disease communicable to humans. Also, the chimpanzees must have rabies, tetanus, pneumonia and tuberculosis vaccines. She said Project Chimps’ application contained a letter from the attending veterinarian at New Iberia Research Center confirming the animals are free of communicable disease and have had required vaccinations. She reminded the Commissioners that the chimpanzees also have USDA and Georgia DNR permits.
Next, Post-Commissioner Earl Johnson “wanted to clear the air.” He said that this (Aug. 9th) evening was the first time he had received information about Project Chimps and he received it at 5:15, 45 minutes before the meeting. He said that the only communication that has been done was through County Attorney Lynn Doss and she doesn’t vote. He also doesn’t want his vote to be a knee-jerk reaction.
In balance to Mr. Johnson’s statements, FetchYourNews reports FetchYourNews reports that a formal announcement of Project Chimps was not made until early May 2016 because negotiations between Project Chimps and New Iberia Research Center had not yet been completed. Then in early May, newswire sources like the Associated Press carried stories about New Iberia Research Center’s chimpanzees moving to Fannin County. This was publicized by other media outlets.
Project Chimps met with Fannin County Emergency Management Agency in early summer to discuss safety at the facility. Project Chimps formally applied for the exotic animal permit on July 15, 2016. And, Project Chimps’ Open House on June 25th had over 300 attendees and was well-covered in local media.
FetchYourNews also asked Marie Woody, the Chief Land Development Officer for Fannin County, when she was able to officially inform the Commissioners about the arrival of Project Chimps. Ms. Woody said that Project Chimps delivered their building permit application in late afternoon on Friday, July 15th and she informed Commission Chairman Bill Simonds and County Attorney Lynn Doss on Monday morning, July 18th.
Then, Mr. Johnson went on to list his concerns. First and foremost are his concerns about security; can chimpanzees escape the facility or uninvited humans or animals get in? He also wanted to know if security barriers will hold up if a tree falls on them. Another concern is what biomedical tests the chimps were involved in and if this can pass to humans through birds or squirrels which will get into the open-air space. He stated that Robert Graham, Director of Fannin County Emergency Management Agency, should be involved in the decision. He said we should have started talking about this three months ago.
FetchYourNews reports that the facility Project Chimps owns was donated by Dewar Wildlife Trust, which ran the facility as Gorilla Haven. It housed 1-4 male gorillas, most notably Zoo Atlanta’s Willie B. Jr. and Jasiri. The gorillas are no longer there and the facility has been retro-fitted to house chimpanzees. Security walls and fences from the gorilla facility remain. There are is no publicly available record of Gorilla Haven’s gorillas transmitting illness to humans in Fannin County, nor is there any record of escape.
Finally, Mr. Simonds commented on Project Chimps again. He said, “We want anything that will benefit Fannin County, but we have to answer to taxpayers.” He also said that the Commissioners received two calls from residents living in My Mountain complaining that Project Chimps will cause their property value to go down. My Mountain borders the west side of the Project Chimps facility. He ended with, “We (the Commissioners) are not going to rush into anything.”
Fannin County Board of Commissioners Meeting, August 9, 2016
This is the first in a series of articles FetchYourNews is writing about Project Chimps. In the next article, FetchYourNews interviews Mike Seres, Director of Chimpanzee Management and Sarah Baeckler Davis, President and CEO of Project Chimps. Following articles will examine Commissioners worries about safety, health and funding in comparison to national data and Project Chimps’ facility.
This article has been updated from the previous version published on August 13.