More than a decade ago, a group of people from Independence, Oregon, asked legacy telecommunications corporations to bring high-speed fiber internet connectivity to their rural community. “They told us ‘we’ll get to you in 10 or 20 years,’” said Shawn Irvine, economic development director for the City of Independence.
“So we got together and decided to just do it ourselves,” Irvine said. “We didn’t want to wait.”
Independence, a town of about 10,000 on the Willamette River, built its own fiber-to-home broadband system, MINET. Today, 85% of local residents subscribe to the municipal utility.
Independence is one of nine communities selected to participate in the 2019 Rural Innovation Initiative. The initiative will help small towns like Independence use their existing high-quality broadband to create more economic opportunity.
Irvine said a few years ago Independence started looking for additional ways to maximize local benefits of their high-speed internet service.
“We took a look and said, ‘this is really great that everyone gets to download Netflix really fast, but what else can we do with this technology?’ What else could do with this technology to create jobs, create businesses? We didn’t feel like we were really leveraging it to its full potential.”
Independence began marketing itself as a potential living laboratory to tech companies interested in testing new products through the “internet of things.” Irvine said one of their strongest partnerships has been due to their existing relationship with the local agriculture community.
“Most notable, we had a partnership with Intel,” Irvine said. “They had a chip that’s small enough we were able to go into the blueberry fields and put a sensor in every tote out there. From there, we could monitor the condition of the crop all the way from the field to the distribution center level. Temperature, humidity, light, shock, all conditions that could impact the quality of the crop. If the crop spoils early for some reason, you can figure out where the problem happens within the distribution system.”
This work and more resulted in Independence being selected as one of nine rural communities in the nation to be part of the initial round of the Rural Innovation Initiative, sponsored by the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) and its sister organization, Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. (RISI).
Participating communities will receive significant staff and professional support to address the “rural opportunity gap, which is bigger than ever,” according to Matt Dunne, CORI founder and executive director of RISI. “We have an explicit focus on developing digital economy ecosystems in small towns.”
Dunne said that the Rural Innovation Initiative was sparked through a conversation with the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, who offered RISI a cooperative agreement to identify and serve rural economic development organizations.
“That was a little ahead of the curve for us, but we jumped at it because of our belief that one entrepreneurship center in one small town wasn’t going to have enough deal flow to attract the interest of national investors,” Dunne said. “But, if you create a consortium of communities, and with that a virtual pool of 100 startups, then you can actually get the attention from the folks who are interested in investing in early stage companies.”
Dunne’s said successful rural innovation hubs contain three key elements (in addition to high-speed internet).
Emporia, Kansas, is another Rural Innovation Initiative participant. The town of 25,000 residents lies about a hundred miles southwest of Kansas City and is home to most residents of Lyon County. Emporia has positioned itself as a high-tech small city poised to expand due to its internet connectivity, education system, and history of small-town entrepreneurship.
“Emporia is one of the few communities with true fiber-optic connectivity to every home and business,” said Rob Gilligan, member of the Emporia City Commission and chair of the Emporia Regional Development Association.
“Everyone has access to full gigabit internet service if they want it, whether that be homes and residences, private businesses or our public institutions like the University. We felt like that technology backbone, combined with our strong educational system, made us an ideal candidate.”
“We have a strong K-through-12 public education system, a two-year technical associates-degree granting college (Flint Hills Technical College), plus a four-year Regents’ University (Emporia State University) to give us a strong educational background,” Gilligan said. “We also have a strong industrial and manufacturing base in Emporia. We’re both a micropolitan statistical area and a service hub for a seven-county region, that includes education services, medical services, a regional hospital and related human resources, the East-Central Kansas Mental Health Center, the Lyon-Coffee County District Court and a lot of retail services.”
Gilligan also said creating a strong community isn’t just about the business numbers. “We pay special attention to quality-of-life issues, trying to help Emporia become a place that people want to be,” he said. “That seems to be more important than any sort of base salary requirement for a job.”
To accomplish this, the community has embraced becoming a destination for tourists and events. The small city hosts Dirty Kanza, one of world’s largest “gravel grinding” bicycle races. The 200-mile-long course runs through the Flint Hills, one of the last tall-grass prairies in the U.S. Emporia is also home to one of the world’s largest disc-golf tournament, the Glass Blown Open, co-sponsored by local disc-golf manufacturer Dynamic Discs.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have any mountains or rivers for rafting, but we do have the beautiful Flint Hills all around us, the beautiful sunsets of the Kansas Plains, numerous parks and outdoor spaces available for people to spend their time,” Gilligan said.
RISI’s Dunne agrees that innovative rural communities should set themselves apart through quality-of-life advantages. “We joke that the real needs for rural economic development are the three Bs: Broadband, Bluegrass and Beer,” Dunne said. (Author’s Note: Barbecue and bass fishing should also be on that list.)
Independence, Oregon, has embraced those quality-of-life elements as well, according to Shawn Irvine. The town’s economic development plans have centered around the historic downtown right along the Willamette River, helping the community reconnect with and embrace the river. The town purchased and developed a riverfront park in the heart of that downtown. Park amenities include an amphitheater with a summer concert and movie series, a 5K bicycle and pedestrian loop that runs along with the river, soccer fields, dog park, and a recreational greenway that also connects different parts of the community.
“We want to be that high-quality small town, that place where you can know your neighbors, you can walk downtown, where you can live and work and play,” Irvine said. “This high-speed fiber system layers on top of that as well for remote working. There’s a lot of people that want that small town lifestyle, but also work high-paying white collar jobs. As an economic developer, we’d like to attract as many of those people as possible.”