Midwest Energy Cooperative is taking a page out of its historic playbook, and bringing a much needed service to its rural customers and communities. The member-owned cooperative is building a fiber optic infrastructure to deliver high-speed internet and other communications solutions to its southwest Michigan service territory.

“Electric cooperatives were formed in the 1930s to bring power and light to the rural space. It was a grassroots effort to meet the needs of rural Americans when the larger, incumbent utilities would not,” says Bob Hance, Midwest Energy Cooperative president/CEO.

“Fast forward nearly 80 years and we have a very similar story. Today’s inequity is high-speed internet, and once again the incumbents won’t build the infrastructure in the less populated rural areas,” Hance continues. “Midwest is stepping in to bridge the digital divide on behalf of our members who largely have been unserved and underserved with true broadband options.”

Midwest Energy Cooperative has been serving the electric needs of rural southwest Michigan for more than 75 years. Today the cooperative is investing in a fiber communication system across its electric distribution grid for utility benefit, and leveraging that investment to bring fiber internet and other communications solutions to its members.

“Technology is evolving at a fast and furious pace. We don’t know what’s coming, but we do know that the next generation of energy efficiency, safety and reliability standards and measures will require robust, two-way communication across the electric grid. By making this investment in our grid today, we will be prepared to power solutions, for both utility and member benefit, well into the future,” Hance says.

The side benefit, fiber internet service to members, is simply icing on the cake.

“Our members have looked to us for years for an internet solution, and we’ve tried with varying degrees of success,” Hance says. “With this necessary investment in our system, we’re able to deliver not just any solution, but the ultimate and most future-proof platform available.”

Hance believes these projects – the smart grid investment and deployment of fiber internet – will change the landscape across southwest Michigan. “When you combine a smart utility grid with what is commonly referred to as the Internet of Things, life as we know it changes,” he says. “Midwest will be able to provide previously unknown opportunities for homes and businesses, while creating an environment in which communities can grow and thrive from an economic development perspective.”

But this exciting journey hasn’t been without its growing pains, literally. Midwest has operated out of its current headquarters facility on East State Street in Cassopolis since 1940. That facility was renovated in the 1990s, and appropriately sized for the needs of that time. No one could have anticipated the opportunity and growth that would face the co-op just two decades later.

“We currently have almost 100 employees operating out of a space that was built to accommodate about 80, and we’re on this fast growth track that requires the addition of significant human and physical resources,” Hance explains.

The co-op expects to add 32 employees over the next five years related to the smart grid and fiber internet projects, and more than 60 new employees over the next 15 years.

“We’re having some serious growing pains, and have limped along with makeshift changes over the years, but we’re simply out of space and can no longer function safely and efficiently,” Hance says.

As the cooperative figuratively changes the landscape of experience for its members, it’s literally changing the landscape at the intersection of M60 and Decatur Road as it builds a new headquarters facility.

“We’ve created and are implementing a vision for something more for our members, and are on a clear path to differentiating ourselves as their Utility of the Future. That utility requires a new home. Like investing in our system, we must invest in the infrastructure that houses other critical resources; namely the people, systems and physical assets behind the service experience,” Hance explains.

Midwest broke ground on the new facility in May, and expects to move in the fall of 2017. The 40-acre campus will include a two-story office building, operations center, enclosed material and vehicle storage, and maintenance facilities. A new substation will be erected on the site. The campus will also include a hardened data center that will protect the company’s own data and servers, with space available to lease to other businesses with similar needs.

Hance believes the development of that intersection sets the stage for other development and growth. “Good economic development breeds additional economic development, and our hope is that our innovative presence at that intersection will draw additional interest and jobs to the area.”

“This is a landmark time in our history,” Hance says. “Rural southwest Michigan is losing population because of a lack of critical services like internet. We’re not only encouraging people and businesses to stay, we’re actually creating reason and relevance for people and businesses to choose this area.

“This investment is a win for our members and a win for the greater region.”