[Vision2020] High-tech brings rural towns back to life

Steven Basoa sbasoa at moscow.com
Wed Dec 26 22:09:14 PST 2007

High-tech brings rural towns back to life

Ten Sleep, Wyo., Fitzgerald, Ga., and others are now budding locales.

By Patrik Jonsson | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

from the December 18, 2007 edition

Fitzgerald, Ga. - Across the street from the Po' Boy Opry, Web  
designer Jannis Paulk, a "refugee" from Atlanta, is helping everyone  
from rural real estate agents to dog breeders expand their markets  
via the Internet.

"I'm a unique breed," says Ms. Paulk from her cluttered desk in the  
back of a downtown clothing consignment shop. It's a scene that  
offers a none-too-subtle symbol of the dot-com world merging with  
small-town Americana.

Paulk is among the high-tech pioneers who are helping locales  
including Fitzgerald become bright spots in rural America.

"It's not just about historical preservation or farming, but also the  
Mayberry mentality – that ultimately people do enjoy these small  
towns," says Chad Adams, director of the Center for Local Innovation  
in Raleigh, N.C. "It's a golden opportunity for small-town America."

Three trends are fueling growth in some rural areas, says Bill  
Gillis, director of the Center to Bridge the Digital Divide in  
Spokane, Wash. Mobile dot-commers with "golden Rolodexes" are  
launching tech-based companies. Eco-fuel growth and rising corn  
prices are pumping money toward entrepreneurs in traditional  
breadbasket industries. And government investments in broadband and  
high-tech "incubators" (subsidized office space geared toward high- 
tech businesses) are allowing local economies to branch out beyond  
the cotton and corn fields.

In Winthrop, Wash., a 950-pop. town near the Canadian border, John  
Nelson launched HomeMovie.com and now employs more than 20 people  
cutting and storing home movies, all in the majestic shadows of the  
North Cascades.

With some help from a state-funded tech incubator, Matt Tice, a video- 
game programmer in New York, left the big city for the Smoky  
Mountains foothill town of Ellenboro, N.C., to start ARCHON Creative  
Design, a studio offering everything from game programming to comic  
book coloring.

Ten Sleep, Wyo., (pop. 350), is the world headquarters for Eleutian  
Technology, LLC, a company with 120 employees that uses Wyoming  
teachers to teach South Koreans how to speak English via  

Eleutian is an example of some of the more advanced start-ups, which  
are dependent on wandering careerists returning to their small-town,  
rural roots, according to Mr. Gillis.

The co-founders of Eleutian, who met in Seoul, both came from small  
towns in the West. "I get up in the morning and go pheasant hunting,"  
says Brent Stanger, Eleutian's vice president of operations. "That's  
the kind of thing you can't do in the city."

The path to rural economic development, however, is paved with empty  
industrial parks and wasted public incentives.

North Carolina faced heavy criticism last year from fiscal  
conservatives after it spent nearly $1 billion to bring a Google  
server farm employing only a few dozen people to a rural Tar Heel town.

Taxpayer-funded economic development schemes proved to be a major  
boondoggle in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., where the $21.5 million taxpayer- 
subsidized renovation of an old theater has largely been a bust, says  
Mr. Adams. Also in North Carolina, Global TransPark, a huge rural  
industrial park equipped with a runway for global reach, still has no  
tenants after years of marketing by the state.

"Too many people think that all you have to do is build an industrial  
park and they will come, and that's not true," says Gerald Thompson,  
who has been the mayor of Fitzgerald for 40 years.

Indeed, for a more realistic look at how rural America will fight  
back, Fitzgerald's journey holds some lessons. The town lost 14 of  
its 15 textile plants in the past decade. More recently, Georgia's  
$20 million investment to build a high-tech wing to East Central  
Technical College has helped the area flourish.

Still, the town of 12,000 is mostly known for the wild flocks of  
Burmese jungle fowl that peck at its brick streets. "This won't be  
Silicon Valley any time soon, and I wouldn't want it to be," says  
Paulk. "It'll remain a small, rural community, but I'm excited to see  
people using technology to find new ways to boost their revenues."

Eyeing a passing gravel train, old-timer Dubois White, a pest-control  
consultant, agrees that the town, located three hours from Atlanta,  
doesn't have a "world of restaurants" or other big-city amenities.  
But despite rural challenges, he says, "we keep an even keel, and  
even gain some."

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