Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn visted Macon County on Aug. 21 to meet with several local officials for a discussion on workforce development, education and other issues. Pictured are (clockwise, from left): Macon County Chamber of Commerce Director Shelly Bealor, Kristina Hibdon of State Sen. Mark Pody's office, Blackburn, Lafayette Mayor Richard Driver, Macon County Director of Schools Tony Boles and Macon County Board of Education member Bryan Nichols.

Ethan Steinquest/Macon County Times

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn visted Macon County on Aug. 21 to meet with several local officials for a discussion on workforce development, education and other issues.

Pictured are (clockwise, from left): Macon County Chamber of Commerce Director Shelly Bealor, Kristina Hibdon of State Sen. Mark Pody's office, Blackburn, Lafayette Mayor Richard Driver, Macon County Director of Schools Tony Boles and Macon County Board of Education member Bryan Nichols.

U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn travelled to Lafayette last Wednesday to meet with city and county officials over lunch at Gibson's Café.

Those gathered discussed various issues, including economic development and education.

"The best way to help (with development) is to work as a part of the team with your local state and federal-elected officials to expand that reach into rural areas," Blackburn said. "We have to make sure these communities have access to high-speed internet and broadband, and I've been very aggressive in my work there to make it easier."

According to Blackburn, the state has been making significant progress in funding internet access in rural communities, with more grants being awarded and more local co-ops offering high-speed service.

One of the ways that rural communities are seeing improved internet access is through the FirstNet initiative, a network for first responders that can also be accessed by the public for a stronger connection when not in use for emergencies.

"When you have more options and you have that competition, it really helps," Blackburn said. "One of the things I keep the focus on is that you're not going to have 21st century economic development, health care, education or law enforcement without access to high-speed internet, and (FirstNet) is a great example of that."

Macon County is set to receive its own FirstNet access as AT&T continues expanding into the area, and Blackburn expects that to give a boost to law-enforcement agencies.

"(It provides) local law enforcement with the opportunity to not only have a phone call on (an incident) but to get a text or get a picture," Blackburn said. "And to be able to drop a (location) pin, it speeds up those response times."

Officials in attendance felt that the meeting with Blackburn was productive, and that they hope to see her keep their concerns in mind back in Washington.

"We discussed workforce development, transportation needs and infrastructure, as well as how our county is made up," Macon County Chamber of Commerce Director Shelly Bealor said. "I think that is one of the most important things, for our elected representatives to come to our county, and I think it went very well."

Macon County Director of Schools Tony Boles, along with members of the Macon County Board of Education, also attended and spoke with Blackburn about education in the district and how economic development could impact it.

"She said there were some opportunities for funding on the new school through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development," Boles said. "This is the first time since I've been director that we've been able to talk to a member of the U.S. Senate, and I'd like to have a similar conversation with Rep. John Rose."

Blackburn also provided an update on some of her legislative priorities for rural areas, including efforts to improve access to health care and address internet security concerns.

"We have introduced the Rural Health Agenda, and it's a group of three bills," Blackburn said. "It accomplishes three purposes: getting more professionals into the rural areas, an innovation fund for setting up and establishing new ways to deliver health care and ... across-state-line telemedicine. I have filed the legislation, have bipartisan co-sponsors on much of this already (with Democratic senators Dick Durbin and Doug Jones backing the first of the three bills), and we're pushing it forward."

Blackburn announced that the Rural Health Agenda on Aug. 1 comes in response to concerns about access to patient care as rural hospitals continue to close. Although Macon Community Hospital has continued to grow, facilities in nearby communities like Clay County have shuttered in recent months.

"Another thing that I'm doing is leading the Technology Task Force," Blackburn said, referring to a subset of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which began meeting on July 18. "We're looking at the issues of online privacy and cybersecurity. We are having hearings, looking at how you develop privacy and data security legislation. We're making good progress and doing well."