A sign on Main Street in Sanford highlights the city's SanfordNet project, which is expected to be the state's largest fiber optic information network when complete. Credit: Shawn P. Sullivan | Seacoast Online

Looking for a sign that Sanford is on the cusp of improving its technology and boosting its economic prospects?

Look no further than Central Park on Main Street. There’s literally a sign there that means construction is now under way for Sanford NetFiber, a project that is expected to significantly unleash technological advances and economic growth in the community.

SanfordNet Fiber is a 45-mile fiber optic network designed to serve the city’s municipal buildings, its downtown mill complex, its 600 acres of industrial parks, and more than 80 other locations, including Southern Maine Health Care’s campus on June Street and the new high school and technical center that is expected to open for students and staff this October.

And like that new high school — which, at $100 million, will be the largest, most state-of-the-art school in Maine — SanfordNet Fiber is a record-breaker of its own, as well. According to the city of Sanford and the Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council, the network is expected to be eight times larger than the next largest municipal information network in the state. It’s also expected to be one of the fastest networks in the northeastern United States, with speeds reportedly a hundred times faster than the national average.

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The project is expected to be completed by November, according to James Nimon, the executive director of the Growth Council.

At last week’s City Council meeting, City Manager Steven Buck announced that Eustis Cable, LLC — the company from Vermont hired to build the network — started construction on SanfordNet Fiber on Aug. 1. The City Council accepted Eustis Cable’s low bid in June and approved the project’s budget and funds.

In July, the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) favorably reviewed the construction contract that the city submitted, paving the way for the project to proceed. The EDA is requiring that a construction sign be posted across the street from City Hall on Main Street and remain there throughout the duration of the project. That’s the sign you’re seeing as you drive by Central Park on Main Street.

With the EDA’s blessing, the city issued a Notice to Proceed to Eustis Cable, as authorized by the City Council, at the end of July.

The entire project is estimated to cost $1.5 million, according to the growth council. The EDA is providing $769,209 of that amount, with the difference covered by the city through its sale of the former Emerson School and other surplus properties.

The city will own the network and is contracting with GWI, a Maine-based internet provider, for its operation.

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“This arrangement will provide an additional source of revenue to the city and place the day-to-day management concerns and upkeep in the hands of an experienced private business,” according to materials provided by the city to explain the project and its benefits.

City officials are maintaining that SanfordNet Fiber will create more than 140 jobs, leverage more than $1 million in private investment, boost home values, and increase business productivity by between $47 million and $191 million over the next decade.

The city started pursuing the project five years ago, when Nimon attended a conference in Portland at which Josh Broder, the CEO of Tilson Technology Company, gave a presentation on municipal broadband networks.

Nimon invited Broder to visit Sanford and to discuss how the city could catch up with the rest of the state with this technology, given that Sanford was not able to connect to the Three Ring Binder that was constructed throughout Maine with federal stimulus funds during the Great Recession. Broder accepted the invitation and met with Nimon and Buck.

In 2014, the city began to plot a project to bring broadband to Sanford. Tilson served as a consultant for the city throughout this process and continues to this day as the project’s architect and engineer.

SanfordNet Fiber “will essentially be the Fourth Ring” to the Three Ring Binder, which is currently 10 miles to the south and east of the city, according to Nimon.

Recently, Sanford was selected as one of five communities in the country whose broadband network will be studied by the Harvard-affiliated Post Road Foundation, Nimon added. The objective of the study this year is to research Sanford’s broadband model and the community to determine if there are long-term funding scenarios that would support connecting the network to every business and residence in Sanford.

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“This portends well for the future economic growth of our community and our region,” Nimon said.

Nimon added that excitement is building, now that the project is well under way and is roughly three months from completion.

“Based on the reaction thus far, many end-users are anxious to access more competitive products and services for their organizations,” Nimon said. “We’ll be patient but vigilant over the next few months, as the network gets built and becomes operational.”

Nimon also added that the growth council “has every confidence” in the project’s team, comprised of the city, Tilson, Eustis Cable, and GWI.

“Each group knows the important role it plays in establishing this unique public-private partnership,” he said.

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Mayor Tom Cote called the start of the network’s construction “exciting news,” noting that the city has experienced its share of delays and unexpected challenges in getting the project to this point. Cote praised Buck for his leadership on the project.

“It is truly a credit to City Manager Steve Buck for his perseverance and ability to navigate an uncharted course to bring this project to life,” Cote said earlier this week.

Cote added that the project, when complete, will put Sanford in a leadership position in the state.

“Our ability to provide affordable, best-in-class broadband service to our business community will be second to none,” he said. ” We can also start positioning SanfordNet Fiber as our differentiating factor to fuel the next wave of economic development in Sanford.”

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