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