Roanoke tries to attract youth

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 06/12/2006 - 12:35

Roanoke is a city near Blacksburg, and the city's demographics are skewed, like many rural towns and cities, toward older people. The City recently decided to stop wringing its hands about the paucity of young people and actually do something. First they hired someone whose primary job responsibility is to solve the problem, and then gave him free rein. Stuart Meese, who landed the job, has both a blog and a city-sponsored online database of young people looking for work in the area.

With over 450 young people in the database after just a few months, the database is fast becoming a valuable resource for area businesses looking for talent. A hat tip to Roanoke and Stuart Meese for putting resources behind the problem and doing something other than just complaining. And while you might ask, "What about" I'd say, "What about it?" They are two different tools, and employers searching the Roanoke database can do so with a reasonable certainty they are looking at motivated potential employees who really want to work in the area. You can't say that with any certainty when you pull up a bunch of listings.

Financing community broadband

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 03/22/2006 - 10:06

Back in 2000, I began promoting the idea that one way communities should finance broadband was by selling shares in a stock ownership corporation. In this way, the entire community could participate in the ownership of a Knowledge Economy business. A stock ownership approach to community broadband has several advantages.

I'm delighted to see that a group right here in the New River Valley is doing what I suggested. The New River Valley Planning District Commission plans to fund a regional fiber network by selling stock to public and private partners.

The only thing I wish they had done differently would be to set the minimum share buy lower. Shares are currently priced at $11.25, and a minimum purchase of 1,000 shares is required. I understand they are trying to raise cash quickly and with a minimum of marketing, but why not sell as little as one share? Payments could be made via Paypal, and it would be easy to generate a digitally signed PDF stock certificate that is emailed to the purchaser.

There are disadvantages to having many small owners, but there are a lot of advantages, including the possibility of raising more money by expanding the investment pool. By using exclusively electronic communications with shareholders, costs can be kept low.

Another approach would be to require a minimum of ten shares, or at the current share price, an investor would have to come up with $112.50. That is still a very low barrier, and I bet lots of people in this area would love to invest in their own community, along with the opportunity to make some money as the network expands.

I remain convinced this is a viable approach almost anywhere in the country, even in distressed rural communities. Most households in America are spending between $150 and $300 PER MONTH on telecom. Why not give those households an opportunity to buy into their own future and own a piece of the telecom infrastructure, rather than leaving them at the mercy of the marketplace?

Congratulations to the NRV PDC for their boldness and vision.

The emerging Agriculture Economy

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/28/2005 - 10:57

I've added a new category called the "Agriculture Economy" to the Technology News section. For several years, I have encouraged rural regions to look closely at new models of agriculture that are entrepreneur-focused, rather than relying on traditional agriculture models where the farmer is basically just the factory floor--food products are "produced" and then put on trucks, hauled away, and sold by others, who also make most of the profit.

In the emerging Agriculture Economy, technology and entrepreneurism are drivers of successful ag businesses. One of the most profitable areas is organic and/or fresh food. Month by month, the organic produce section of our local grocery stores expands. Five years ago, you had to make a special trip to the local health food store to buy organic carrots. Now, the local Kroger offers organic carrots as well as a wide variety of other organic foods.

Specialty fresh foods are also an emerging market opportunity, and I decided to add this new topic area after reading an article in the Roanoke Times about a tobacco farmer who just harvested his first crop of shrimp. Grown in freshwater ponds, the shrimp sell for $7 a pound, and the shrimp farmer had a huge crowd of people lined up to buy them. He is now thinking about adding a pick your own broccoli field.

With heightened awareness of chemicals, additives, and genetic manipulation of factory farm food, more and more people are willing to pay a bit more for locally produced and/or organic food. Sold directly to grocery stores by the entrepreneurial farmer, the profit margins are much higher. The high tech/entrepreneur farmer will also be using technology to monitor crops, keep quality high, and to reduce the human labor required to produce food. And the Internet is a key marketing partner; fresh food can be sold directly to customers via the Internet, delivered fresh by overnight delivery services.

There are simply not enough "high tech" software and technology firms to bring jobs to every rural area of the country. A tunnel vision economic development strategy that places too much reliance on "high tech" or "biotech" without looking realistically at the odds of being successful is just as damaging as continuing to hope for some good Manufacturing Economy jobs.

Tobacco farmers are well positioned to make this transition successfully, as they already understand how to manage small acreage, high cash value crops. But small farmers in other regions may need help from economic developers, especially on the technology and business/entrepreneurial side of the business.

A Tech Council making a difference

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 10/02/2005 - 19:46

The Region 2000 Technology Council, which serves Lynchburg, Virginia and the surrounding area, is really beginning to make a difference. A year ago, they found that too many people in the area still did not understand the value of broadband, in part because they had never had a chance to try it.

So the Tech Council rolled up its sleeves and went to work. They set of goal of getting 50 WiFi hotspots in the region in the next year, and started with the airport. A little more than a year later, the group has met its goal, and free WiFi is available for business and personal use throughout the Lynchburg area.

The effort has been good for the business owners that have made the small investment needed to create individual hotsports. Hotels, B&Bs, coffee shops, and other businesses are seeing increased traffic, according to an article in the Blue Ridge Business Journal (paper edition).

Loudoun County creates Manager of Broadband Services

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 04/08/2005 - 08:45

Loudoun County, which is located in northern Virginia, has created what may be a first--the county now has a paid position called Manager of Broadband Services. Funded from telecom use fees paid to the county, the new employee, Scott Bashore, will have the responsibility to advise the county on broadband strategies, set a vision for the county on the future use of technology, and will work closely with businesses to ensure the county has the right broadband infrastructure in place to support economic development.

This may be the first person with this kind of job, but it won't be the last. Too many community broadband efforts have been led by informal coalitions without much support from local government, and while some great work has been done, it's hard work without institutionalized support from local government.

Here is the reality: like it or not, communities need to fund and support a digital transport system just like they fund roads, and for the same reasons--it helps create jobs and enhances economic development. And that means local government has to get involved and stay involved. Loudoun County is to be commended for what they have done.

Southside Virginia builds high capacity regional network

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/25/2005 - 13:54

Here is an excerpt from a brochure about a project in Southside Virginia, a rural area that has traditionally relied on tobacco as a primary engine of its economy. Furniture and textile manufacturing were also mainstays for jobs and development, but over the past twenty years, all three have declined sharply.

The low cost of living, combined with the proximity to Greensboro and the North Carolina Research Triangle, may make Southside one of the best places to work in America, once this infrastructure is in place.

Also included as a service will be MSAPs in some locations, which create very high performance community intranets that support next generation multimedia services. The MSAP concept was pioneered by me while I was Director of the Blacksburg Electronic Village. Blacksburg has had an MSAP in operation since 1999, and Danville, Virginia also has an MSAP.

Note the emphasis on leasing capacity to "all interested providers," which includes incumbents, who, if they are smart, will realize they can lower their costs by leasing instead of overbuilding.

The Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative (MBC), a non-profit cooperative with funding from the Economic Development Authority (EDA) and the Virginia Tobacco Commission (VTC), has contracted to deploy an advanced open-access wholesale broadband network in Southside Virginia. The RBI is a 700-mile fiber-optic network with 48 strands of dedicated fiber backbone, Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) architecture, dual rings with 13 OC-192 backbone sites and 65 satellite locations providing low speed & high speed interconnect facilities (OC-3, OC-12, OC-48, STS, VT). In addition to the turn-key implementation of the RBI, MBC has invested in building a new state of the art Network Operations Control Center (NOCC) in South Boston, Virginia.

The RBI network will connect four cities, 20 counties and 56 industrial parks providing access to nearly 700,000 citizens and more than 19,000 businesses throughout Southside Virginia. The goal of this project is to promote economic development opportunities for the region, attracting technologybased business and industry. Network construction begins in January 2005 and will be turned-up in phases. MBC plans to have the entire network fully operational by December 2006. MBC will be selling/leasing fiber and services on a wholesale basis to all interested providers.

Supercomputers as economic development infrastructure

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 10/26/2004 - 09:27

About this time last year, Virginia Tech, right here in rural Appalachia, made world news with a dirt cheap supercomputer that ranked number 3 in the world in terms of speed and processing power.

The university did some thinking out of the box and discarded the conventional approach to building supercomputers (typically using a lot of custom hardware). Instead they bought 1100 off the shelf Macintoshes, wired them together with more off the shelf hardware, and wrote a small amount of software to turn the Macs into a monster supercomputer.

Since then, the university has swapped out all the older G4 processor-based machines for much smaller Macintosh Xserve industrial servers based on the much more powerful G5 processor. The floor space needed for the machine shrunk, the heat output was reduced, and speed was increased by 19%.

I remain convinced that a regional supercomputer facility should be regarded as essential economic development infrastructure. Microenterprise businesses and other small businesses increasingly need access to supercomputing facilities, and this is no different that sewer and water was forty years ago.

The good news is that putting a supercomputer together is pretty easy. Apple will build you a turnkey G5 cluster so you don't need a research university. And for a rural community seeking an edge in the global economy, I can't think of a better calling card. A modest supercomputer facility would not cost as much as a shell building, and would be a perfect complement to a business incubator.

Broadband is a "necessity"

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 07/28/2004 - 08:33

A Ziff-Davis news article chronicles a series of new broadband projects and applications using broadband, and calls broadband a "necessity."

Big Stone Gap, Virginia is keeping some employers in town and attracting new ones with the help of their fiber network. Led by Skip Skinner of the Lenowisco Planning District, the region has been laying fiber in Emtelle microduct for the past year, building a regional fiber backbone and making fiber available to downtown businesses in Big Stone Gap.

Design Nine has been working with Skinner and Lenowisco Planning District since early spring on a telecom master plan for the entire region, and of course, the fiber buildout is a cornerstone of future plans.

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