HANCOCK COUNTY — NineStar Connect is poised to expand its rural utility services by offering water and sewer service to thousands of businesses and residences that currently depend on well water and septic systems.
The Greenfield-based nonprofit cooperative, which currently provides Internet and electric utilities, is seeking approval from county officials to begin offering water and sewer services to residents and companies in nearly 45,000 acres of rural land between Greenfield and Fortville.
No water or sewer lines currently exist in the vast majority of the territory; roughly 2,700 homes and businesses lie in the area now, most of which are dependent on wells and septic systems.
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In March, the proposal is expected to go before the Hancock County Water and Wastewater District for approval. If passed, the expansion could promote economic growth in the areas affected, drawing new businesses and neighborhoods to the county, local officials said.
But the expansion won’t happen overnight, said Mike Burrow, NineStar president and CEO.
Constructing water and sewer lines are significantly more expensive than other utilities; while it costs $50,000 to $60,000 to hang a mile of electric lines to poles, building a mile of sewer and water pipes would run approximately $500,000, Burrow said.
But Burrow stresses the importance of taking the first step to bring those services to the area.
“I’d argue we’re building as much for the future as we are for the current,” Burrow said. “We’re trying to understand what’s going to attract the younger generations, particularly businesses but also residences.”
The location of where water and sewer lines will be placed will depend on the topography of the area, taking into account elevation and slope of the land, Burrow said.
Still, by opening the area up to developers — who previously wouldn’t consider building in the area because of the lack of utilities — the expansion will likely spark new development in rural parts of the county, Burrow said.
If the company, which currently serves more than 15,500 homes in Hancock and part of Henry, Hamilton and Madison counties, receives approval, it has agreements in place to purchase two existing water and sewer utilities inside the company’s requested service territory, Burrow said.
One of those facilities, Sugar Creek Utilities, currently provides water and sewer service at Heartland Resort off West County Road 300N, along with 76 homes in a neighboring subdivision.
Operations at that facility could be ramped up to accommodate more users, and the location could serve as a starting point for the expansion, Burrow said.
The other service site, Philadelphia Water Works, isn’t in operation but has the capacity to provide water and sewer services to the area, Burrow said. The current owner of the land is a developer who has plans to build a 137-home subdivision in the area.
The purchases will be paid for through existing cash reserves; financial details were not disclosed.
Burrow said he doesn’t anticipate the expansion will immediately add any positions to the company’s 115-member workforce.
He estimates it might take between four and five years to gain roughly 400 to 500 new customers, after which the company would likely hire a new operator to handle the expanded customer-base.
The company also plans to apply for funding support from state and federal services that subsidize projects that provide utilities to rural areas, Burrow said.
Residents and businesses in the area won’t be required to hook up to NineStar’s services, Burrow said.
Roughly three-quarters of the residents living in the expansion area are already NineStar customers, said David Spencer, director of marketing.
NineStar already has fiber optic cables laid throughout the entire area it wants to acquire. That network will make it possible for the company to connect future water and sewer pipes to a “smart” network, allowing users to actively monitor their usage rates.
Steve Vail, chairman of NineStar’s board of directors, said he anticipates that function will be attractive to users who want to track their utility consumption.
“It’s all about putting that customer hat on and recognizing what we can do from the customer’s perspective,” Vail said.
Adding sewer and water lines will lead to higher land values in the area, Burrow said.
And diversifying the company’s services will bolster its ability to continue offering utilities at the same rates.
Any profit made would be distributed to customers, all of whom are members of the cooperative and share in the company’s earnings, Burrow added.
If NineStar begins offering services to the area, it won’t be an immediate competitor to municipalities that currently offer the same utilities, Burrow said.
Fortville and Greenfield, which border the proposed expansion area, offer water and sewer utilities to residents, and the land requested by NineStar for approval leaves a buffer area around both municipalities, taking into account the possibility city limits will expand outward in the coming years, Burrow said.
While the expansion won’t encroach on any existing service land, Greenfield utilities director Mike Fruth said he worries what NineStar’s plans might mean for the city in the long run.
“It could interfere with our ability to grow and expand,” Fruth said.
Brad Armstrong, a member of the Hancock County Board of Commissioners, which oversees the Hancock County Water and Wastewater District, said he’s excited to see the development.
Many of the neighborhoods in the territory sought by NineStar rely on old septic systems, some of which are likely to fail in the near future, he said. Replacing and maintaining systems can also be costly, he added.
“There’s a lot of potential for some nice development in that area,” Armstrong said.
If the request is approved by the water and wastewater district, it will go on to receive the state’s OK from the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission, which Burrow estimates would occur sometime during the summer.
Skip Kuker, executive director of the Hancock Economic Development Council, said the move has the potential to attract developers who might otherwise have overlooked Hancock County.
With utility service available in rural areas, companies and developers might look more closely at the territory NineStar is eyeing, which makes up nearly a quarter of the county’s land, Kuker said.
Kuker said he’s always actively pursuing residential development projects to house the county’s growing workforce.
“As we’re landing the jobs, we need to make sure those people have a place to live,” Kuker said. “It’ll definitely be a good play for us.”