Reaching the Wildcat and Stoney Fork areas

A map of phase two of the proposed broadband strengthening in Watauga County, reaching the Wildcat and Stoney Fork areas, was shown at the Aug. 3 meeting.

BOONE — The Watauga County Commissioners met for the first time in August on Tuesday, Aug. 3, and were immediately discussing the COVID-19 pandemic’s resurgence.

“We all want it to be over with, we all want to get through this, but we’re dealing with a virus out of our control,” said AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene. “Watauga County is now a substantial transmission area, that changed today. I will tell you, I wasn’t surprised.”

Greene said that the rise in the virus’s “Delta variant” and the amount of people not getting vaccinated has caused a rapid increase in the number of cases in Watauga and the surrounding counties. She noted that more than 80 percent of new cases in recent weeks have been linked to the variant, which is much more contagious.

Pointing to the day-by-day new case numbers in Watauga over the course of July, Greene noted that the county went nearly a full week without any new cases, only for it to spike midway through the month.

“I want to remind you that we still have half of our population that is not vaccinated, and that is the key to get us to a better place,” Greene said. “When we have more people vaccinated, we have more protection.”

She said it is her belief that getting the county to above 65 percent vaccinated, potentially 70 percent, would be a big step in slowing the spread of the virus.

“I am afraid for you if you’re not vaccinated,” Greene said. Greene said AppHealthCare is currently offering vaccines without an appointment being required, while those who get vaccinated will receive a $100 card as part of a state government program.

Following Greene was a presentation from Blue Ridge Energy and SkyLine/SkyBest, proposing a major addition to the county’s broadband capabilities.

According to BRE Chief Technology Officer Brad Shields, the plan would be to get 90-95 percent of the county access to broadband internet with an additional 75 miles of “trunk fiber,” with branches reaching 1,565 homes.

Shields noted that the pandemic has only increased the awareness for quality internet connection with people working from home or taking online classes, adding that children “won’t have to go to the fire station parking lot to connect to Wi-Fi.”

The plan would cost $7 million and take an estimated three years to complete. It would be built in four stages, the first reaching the Triplett and Powder Horn areas, the second reaching the Wildcat and Stoney Fork areas, the third reaching the Blackberry and Sampson areas and the fourth reaching the Howard’s Creek area.

The companies were asking that funding for the project come from Watauga’s $10,911,724 in American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 funding. At the same time, they asked that a final decision be made by September, citing current backlogs of up to 50 weeks on some of the necessary materials.

The Board members were receptive to the idea, opting to table the discussion to their next meeting so county employees can look through the proposal and the ARP to make sure everything lines up before any action is taken.

Also at the meeting were representatives from New River Light and Power, presenting the county with the chance to go to 100 percent renewable energy in 2022.

According to General Manager Ed Miller, NRLP has begun exploring alternative options for wholesale power purchasing, eventually finding some that can offer renewable energy from hydroelectric facilities in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee, beginning in January 2022.

With the option on the table, the company offered the county the chance to change their electric sourcing from standard avenues to fully-hydroelectric when it becomes available. The changeover would cost the county $34,296 if they went to 100 percent renewable.

Commissioner Billy Kennedy was the first to voice his support for the idea, noting that moves like this were the best choice for the environment. The board approved the switch unanimously.

The next meeting of the Watauga County Board of Commissioners is Tuesday, Aug. 17.

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