Forest Festival Poster

Chamber president and CEO Tara Watson-Watkins, left, and Brookshire Brothers community relations associate Lauren Chatman unveil the poster for the 35th annual Texas State Forest Festival during the First Friday luncheon at Crown Colony Country Club.

DETCOG executive director Lonnie Hunt spoke to Chamber members about the organization at Friday’s First Friday luncheon at Crown Colony Country Club.

“Across our region, I find that almost everyone has heard of DETCOG, but very few people really have much of an understanding about just who we are and what we do,” Hunt said. “You’re going to get the ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of that today.”

The Deep East Texas Council of Governments is one of 24 councils of government in the state of Texas set up to promote regional development, promote efficiency and eliminate duplication, Hunt said.

“I’ve been on both sides of DETCOG, from the local governments that it serves to the inside where the rubber hits the road,” he said.

DETCOG services 12 counties. It is one of the few entirely rural regions in Texas. Most regions have an urban center, but Lufkin’s population of 30,000 doesn’t meet the required 50,000 mark of an urban center, even though it acts as a hub for commerce, health care and more, Hunt said.

This year DETCOG has a budget of $20 million, 70% of which is made up of dues by the governments involved. With that budget, the organization offers many programs and services to its counties.

Hunt discussed the various programs offered including the Senior CORPS RSVP (Retired and Senior Volunteer Program).

“Our RSVP program is one of our smaller programs in terms of the dollars invested in it, but it yields a huge return on investment,” he said. “We have one of the largest rural programs in the country with 900 volunteers working in 100 different workstations. These are schools, hospitals, libraries, museums, food pantries. The value of these volunteers is calculated at more than $6 million a year.”

DETCOG also facilitates a Regional 911 program. The agency recently rolled out a Text to 911 option for times in which a person is unable to call. DETCOG also facilitates a 211 Texas Network where individuals can call 24/7 and be referred to organizations that can help in times of crisis.

Hunt also announced that DETCOG will be moving to a building on 1405 Kurth Drive in Lufkin. Thanks to the donations and grants given to the organization and money saved in preparation, DETCOG will be moving into the $3 million building with around $200,000-300,000 in loans.

The end of Hunt’s speech covered the future of rural broadband in Deep East Texas.

“Lufkin is one of our better served communities,” Hunt said. “Most of you in the city of Lufkin have pretty decent broadband. I will tell you, it’s not that way throughout Deep East Texas.”

DETCOG invested a little more than $500,000 into a regional planning study that recently came to a close. The results should be delivered soon, and Hunt said doors are already opening for this project.

In a 10-year period, rural broadband would provide more than 10,300 jobs and $1.4 billion in GDP growth, Hunt said. Beyond that, it would improve quality of life for many, including students.

All schools in Deep East Texas have good broadband right now because the federal government pays 80% of the cost, Hunt said. However, that doesn’t spill into the community, and teachers in smaller cities like Coldspring couldn’t assign internet-based projects or research as homework because more than half of school children have no broadband at home.

Statewide and national media has taken notice of the notion of rural broadband in Deep East Texas, Hunt said. Experts who have spoken to stakeholders in the region said that the problem is easy to fix but it requires a lot of money and local political willpower.

“I’ve seen enough to be convinced that if we can develop the local political willpower, we can get the money,” he said. “We’ll need your help. Thank you and God bless.”

After Hunt spoke, Chamber president and CEO Tara Watson-Watkins revealed the first poster advertising the 35th annual Texas State Forest Festival that will include a parade for the first time since 1953. The theme is watercolor.

Grace Juarez’s email address is grace.juarez@lufkindailynews.com.