Viewpoint: Building the infrastructure for growth, opportunity
By Ayanna Khan
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated Delaware’s economy, and Black-owned businesses have been among the hardest hit. Nationwide, 57% of Black small business owners have closed down following the pandemic.
Many of these struggling business owners cheered last month as Congress passed the American Rescue Plan – the largest and most ambitious economic relief bill in American history. It included $1,400 checks, expanded child tax credits, and enhanced unemployment benefits that will directly help Delaware families – as well as the local small businesses where this money gets spent. For minority-owned businesses struggling to get back on their feet, this economic shot in the arms of our local business communities will be like manna from heaven.
The plan’s funding for our state and local governments – roughly $350 billion in total, including $1.2 billion for Delaware and $108 million for New Castle County – also offers an opportunity to green-light long-delayed infrastructure needs.
But the shadow of the 2009 stimulus looms large over this new gusher from Washington. Back then, billions were wasted on high-profile boondoggles like Solyndra and failed rural broadband programs, and public trust eroded with each embarrassing headline.
To make sure the ARP delivers on its full potential for Delaware families and small business owners, local and state leaders will need to set clear priorities and avoid repeating those old mistakes. We only have one chance to get this right, and we can’t afford to waste it.
This is particularly true if our state or county chooses to put any of this new funding toward broadband projects. To avoid the broadband mistakes from the 2009 stimulus, it’s vital that our leaders focus these resources in the unserved areas of our state where there’s truly an urgent need.
Most of Delaware already has basic broadband available, and private investment continues to improve speeds and competition in these areas. The windfall coming to Delaware from the ARP is a lot of money – but it’s not limitless, and it shouldn’t be thrown away on projects where private investment is already more than willing to foot the bill.
Instead, state officials should explore using some of the funds on public-private partnerships to finally bring high-speed internet to the last remaining unserved pockets of our state. Be smart about identifying where the gaps still exist – then invite every broadband provider to compete and bid.
We should pick the best and most cost-effective solutions and make it clear that providers will have to give the money back if they don’t keep their promises and meet their deadlines. Real accountability and oversight will help avoid the debacles we saw in the 2009 stimulus broadband programs.
Universal broadband availability is critical to Delaware’s future growth and competitiveness in the global economy. But that will take more than just getting broadband wires in every neighborhood. We need to be sure that we also get everyone online.
The Rescue Plan includes $7 billion to help schools provide internet connectivity to vulnerable students. Our local districts should explore using this funding to launch the kind of public-private partnerships embraced by cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, which have been able to offer free home broadband to every student who needs it.
Of course, students’ and families’ need for a helping hand getting connected won’t end just because the pandemic ends. Congress will ultimately need to back up these emergency measures with a permanent, long-term broadband benefit program. The pandemic taught us the hard way that our digital divide is a major barrier to educating our future workforce – we owe it to every Delaware family to make sure they’re not cut off from the educational and economic opportunities that come with being connected.
Beyond broadband, Delaware is also staring at a $806 million long-term funding gap for drinking water needs and a $206 million shortfall for wastewater projects. Using ARP funds to clear this backlog will both create construction jobs in the short-term and better position our region to support a growing population that will help accelerate our recovery.
Almost every conversation I’ve had in the past month – from friends and neighbors to local business owners in the Delaware Black Chamber of Commerce – reflects a cautious optimism about the months ahead. For all the suffering, pain, and loss we’ve endured together over the past year, the accelerating vaccine rollout and bright economic outlook offer the promise of better days ahead.
With smart priorities and strong oversight, the new Rescue Plan can help deliver on that promise. We need to get this right.
Ayanna Khan is CEO of the Delaware Black Chamber of Commerce