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Stimulus pays for fiber optic to empty building

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia used federal stimulus funds to run 425 feet of fiber-optic cable to a building in downtown Huntington that's now empty.

The state spent $22,600 for a high-end Internet router and $14,800 to bring a high-speed fiber connection to the Huntington-based Region 2 Planning and Development Council. The regional economic development agency leased office space at the now-vacant property last year, but moved to a new location in February.

The fiber connection now belongs to the building's new owner -- a prestigious Huntington law firm.

The Region 2 Planning Council's new headquarters doesn't have a high-speed fiber connection. The Internet router remains in storage.

"We're not sure what to do," said Jody Sigmon, an associate planner with Region 2's sister agency, the KYOVA Interstate Planning Commission. "We're in the dark. We're all in the dark."

In 2010, West Virginia received a $126.3 million federal stimulus grant to bring high-speed fiber to 1,064 "community anchor institutions" -- schools, libraries, 911 centers, county courthouses, state police detachments, health clinics and a host of other public agencies, including regional planning councils. As part of the grant, each site receives a $22,600 Cisco 3945 series router and fiber optic connection.

The "enterprise-class" routers were designed to serve research universities, medical centers and large corporations, but the state is installing the pricey devices at smaller facilities, such as the Region 2 Planning Council, which serves Mason, Cabell, Logan, Mingo, Wayne and Lincoln counties. The Huntington-based agency has six employees and receives state, federal and local funding.

For years, the Region 2 Planning and Development Council leased space at 720 Fourth Ave. -- a prime location directly across from the Cabell County Courthouse in downtown Huntington.

But the Council wanted to stop paying rent and buy its own building. Last fall, agency officials started inquiring about office properties, including the possibility of purchasing the 720 Fourth Ave. building.

On Oct. 6, 2011, Frontier's chief engineer and West Virginia's federal "grant implementation team" signed off on the project to bring fiber and a router to Region 2's office.

Soon after, engineers and contractors started showing up.

"We told the engineers. We said we don't know if we're going to move or stay," Sigmon recalled.

Nonetheless, the state pushed ahead and finished the fiber installation on Oct. 31, records show. The fiber construction and installation cost $14,844. A $22,600 router was delivered to the agency in December.

Two months later, the Region 2 Council purchased a new building -- at 204 Fourth St. in Huntington -- and moved there. Agency employees took the router with them.

Last week, Sigmon had trouble finding the boxed-up router. He searched several employee offices. He eventually found the router stuffed in the bottom of a closet.

The outside of the box was marked "$30K."

Sigmon struggled to drag and lift the heavy box. He opened it. The router was still in its original packaging.

Sigmon declined to answer questions about the router's future and whether Region 2 administrators told state officials or Frontier about the pending move last fall. He referred those questions to his boss, Michelle Craig, the Region 2 Planning Council's executive director. Craig did not respond to three phone messages and an email.

Frontier spokesman Dan Page said the company wasn't aware of the Huntington-based agency's moving plans last October. Frontier follows directives from the state's grant implementation team, Page said.

"I'm not aware of any notification," he said. "Our charge is to bring fiber to specific sites. We build it to where they tell us to build it."

West Virginia homeland security chief Jimmy Gianato, who heads the federal stimulus broadband expansion project, said he was unaware that Frontier had installed fiber to an empty building. Gianato was unsure whether Frontier had billed for the work and been paid.

"If we would have known about the move beforehand, we wouldn't have built to that site," he said. "But somebody's going to benefit from that fiber being there. They can use the fiber."

Indeed, somebody might.

In April, the Huntington law firm of Lamp, O'Dell, Bartram, Levy, Trautwein and Perry PLLC bought the building at 720 Fourth Ave., where the Region 2 Council leased office space.

The firm paid $540,000 for the property, and plans to move there from its current River Tower office in late July.

Matt Perry, a lawyer with the firm, said he didn't know the law firm's new location would have a high-speed fiber connection paid for by the federal stimulus. He said the building's former owner never mentioned it.

Perry said his firm, which has about a dozen employees, likely wouldn't need the extra Internet speed.

"I don't know if we could functionally use it," he said.

Sigmon said the fiber offers incredibly fast download speeds -- speeds that his agency will never use because it doesn't have such a fiber connection at its new headquarters.

"It's the best fiber," he said. "It's the best fiber you can get."

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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