Hugh Grunden, President and CEO of Easton Utilities (right), speaks with Maryland Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford (left) and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue (center).

The United States Department of Agriculture announced on Friday, July 31, that Easton Utilities has been awarded a $13.1 million Rural eConnectivity grant to bring broadband service to a large portion of rural Talbot County.

TalbotWorks caught up with EU President and CEO Hugh Grunden for some background on how his team formed a unique partnership with Talbot County to achieve this milestone.

TalbotWorks: How did Easton Utilities decide to partner with Talbot County on the USDA grant application?

HG: For several years, Easton Utilities has been analyzing possible solutions on how to address the ever-increasing need for ubiquitous broadband service. The one constant roadblock in every scenario was the finance portion. Who will pay for this? About the same time, Talbot County began to tackle the issue of connectivity throughout the County and about three years ago identified there were more than 3,000 total locations with insufficient broadband access.

Therefore, in 2017 Easton Utilities completed a Request for Information issued by Talbot County, and we were identified as the best candidate to provide service to these locations in the County based on proposed construction costs, experience, and ability to perform. This process was just the beginning of a solid partnership which prepared us to complete a remarkable application when USDA announced the ReConnect program funding in April 2019.

TalbotWorks: USDA applications are known to be challenging to complete. Tell us about the application process.

HG: It was an arduous process to say the least. I would be remiss if I did not share how this activity demonstrated the importance of teamwork and a true sense of the word partnership.

Our federal elected officials, Congressman Andy Harris and his office, along with US Senators’ Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen were fully engaged and committed to getting us across the finish line. I also want to thank the Governor Hogan and the State of Maryland team for their continued commitment to rural broadband. Rick Gordon with the Governor’s Office of Rural Broadband was instrumental during the application process.

We also appreciate the support we received from Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Maryland’s Secretary for Natural Resources, and her team. The ongoing commitment to the pursuit of solutions for the rural broadband problem from our Eastern Shore Delegation, Senator Addie Eckardt, Delegate Chris Adams, and Delegate Johnny Mautz, has been inspiring.

From the Easton Utilities side, John Horner, Chief Operating Officer, led the application process and coordinated efforts by all to complete a thorough document. Ted Book, Director of Easton Velocity was instrumental providing the technical design and cost estimates and Chief Financial Officer Steve Ochse produced the financial pro forma necessary to demonstrate the financial feasibility of the project. In addition, the engineering and marketing departments were involved in the application process as well as many others.

This team worked closely with Talbot County’s County Manager Andy Hollis, GIS Director Mark Cohoon, and the Director of Economic Development and Tourism Cassandra Vanhooser. Combining the knowledge and experience of this team led to a successful application, and this conquest shows their dedication to our citizens, our organization, and our community.

TalbotWorks: Now that you’ve won the award, what happens next?

HG: The project will immediately go into the planning, engineering, design, and grant administration process. The construction phase is slated to begin in 2021 and we are committed to sharing information and updates as they are confirmed. We are sharing all the information we have at this time at www.eastonvelocity.com/ConnectTalbot.

TalbotWorks: In your opinion, how will this affect the future of Talbot County?

HG: Much-needed opportunities will be realized in the areas of education, business and information access. The overall benefits of this project will be immeasurable, and the positive impacts will last a lifetime.

Photo: Executive Office of the Governor