Are Rural Communities Ripe for ‘Gig’ Development?

By Aleisha Smith

Photo: City Manager Bob Sivick gives historical context to a group of visioning tour participants outside the new City Hall.

With all the talk lately about infrastructure development in the United States, it’s no wonder investment in municipal fiber optic networks has been landing in the spotlight as often as it has. As manufacturing and tech jobs lead market expansion, more and more developments are getting ‘wired’ to meet the ever-increasing demands for speed and capacity in the fields of technology, research, and manufacturing. An expanding 3D printing company needs to increase production; a large design firm needs to send contract documents overseas to meet a deadline — where they decide to locate production may determine the future of urban development.

In order to stay competitive, companies seeking advanced infrastructure to support their communication and networking needs are relocating their headquarters and research facilities to larger, urban areas or to large campuses to take advantage of urban amenities for workers and cutting edge technology for production and communications. Companies like Google and Amazon have formed a quickly expanding technology center in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle. Apparel giants like Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour are part of Portland’s athletic and outdoor industry cluster. Other Portland Economic Development Strategy clusters include clean tech, advanced manufacturing, research and commercialization, and software—all part of the aptly nicknamed “Silicon Forest.” The large investments by technology and innovation-based companies in turn creates a strong economic future for the urban centers of the Pacific Northwest.

Building Connections in Smaller Communities

Chattanooga, Tennessee, a.k.a. ‘gig city’, was the first on scene to make a citywide commitment to ‘gig’ – or high-speed fiber optic infrastructure – development. With a population of just over 170,000, Chattanooga’s economy during most of its history was based on natural resource extraction and manufacturing. As those industries transformed and contracted, city leaders were forced to look ahead to discern a new economic future.  According to the article, “The Latest Real Estate Amenity: 1-G Internet Service” in the March/April 2017 issue of Urban Land Institute Magazine, Chattanooga’s municipal electric utility invested in the development of a citywide 1-gig fiber optic network as part of a program to increase the reliability of its power system. By providing the highest internet speeds and largest bandwidth available, Chattanooga was able to position themselves to attract companies like the start-up incubator Lamp Post Group, and to support existing research and development like that being done at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The investment has helped to revitalize the city’s economy. By providing the fiber optic infrastructure, the city was able to catalyze much needed development in their economic and academic communities.

Rural communities in Oregon are currently experiencing similar economic challenges based on reduced demand for traditional timber-based production in the United States. Whole communities are now finding themselves in a ‘strive or die’ state of economic decline. They are seeing younger generations leaving after high school for larger cities, preferring to relocate for education and job opportunities. The decrease in population has further escalated the lack of opportunities available in rural communities.

In some forward-thinking rural communities in the Pacific Northwest, city leaders are turning to high-speed, fiber optic infrastructure to reverse this trend. By providing the needed infrastructure for the jobs of tomorrow, they hope to attract outside investment and economic development, while retaining younger members of the community.

Photo: Willamina City aerial view captured by an unmanned aerial Drone (Yuneec Typhoon H)

One of these cities is Willamina, Oregon. Willamina is a rural community of about 2,000 people, tucked into Oregon’s mid-valley region, just off Route 18 on the Willamina-Sheridan Hwy 157 bypass.  Originally dubbed ‘Timber Town USA’, the community has seen a decline in population as well as economic development as industry has shifted away from timber production to more service and tourism based markets.  Willamina is located just 40 minutes south of Dundee, the center of Oregon Wine Country, and 30 minutes from Lincoln City and the Oregon Coast. As the ‘Gateway to the Coast”, Willamina provides access to an extensive network of coastal hiking and bike trails, as well as fishing, in a relaxing small town atmosphere perfect for a weekend getaway.

In hopes of rebuilding their economy and attracting innovative talent, the City of Willamina has entered into a public/private partnership with OnlineNW, a regional internet service provider (ISP).. OnlineNW has had a successful history of working with smaller communities like Willamina in the past by focusing on creating ‘global economies for rural communities’. Following a successful fiber optic partnership with Dayton, Oregon in 2016, OnlineNW entered into a 10-gig development agreement with the City of Willamina. According to their agreement, OnlineNW provides an infrastructure investment of close to $1 million for network construction once 40 percent of the community subscribes to this internet service. 15 percent of gross revenue from the service then goes to an Innovate Fund managed by Innovate Willamina, a community initiative created to encourage an innovation-based economy. At completion, Willamina will be the fourth city in the nation with a 10-gig fiber optic network.

With this kind of investment, not only will Willamina be able to provide the networking capacity to ensure tech and manufacturing businesses the speeds and connections they need to compete in the current market, they will also be able to provide their employees with lifestyle amenities ranked at the top of many of today’s entrepreneurial wish lists. As the world shapes itself to accommodate a tech generation that desires less space and more quality of life, rural communities have the potential to wire themselves into the next generation of tech empires by offering front porch access to wilderness, recreation, beautiful vistas, and an authentic, small town feel.

Becoming a ‘gig city’ is not without its challenges, however. Are rural communities really ready for the kind of development that high-speed, fiber optic service provides? Many rural communities have not updated their planning documents since the late-1970s. When looking at such an amazing opportunity for change, there are a number of limiting factors that have to be addressed if these small towns want to move into the 21st century. Rural communities are turning to local leadership, city planners, and even partnerships with local ISPs to get the economic and community development resources they need to make their gig dreams a reality.

The Role of Planners

In 2016, Willamina hired a new city manager, Bob Sivick, to help lead them down the path they needed to be successful. This energy led them to the Oregon APA Community Assistance Planning Program (CAPP), modeled after the National APA’s Community Planning Assistance Teams program (CPAT). According to the American Planning Association, ‘CAPP was created specifically to support under-resourced communities and organizations in collaborative planning efforts. The service is free and is supported by volunteers and the Oregon Chapter of the APA. Oregon is now the seventh APA chapter to start a program that assists communities with pro bono planning services.

In March of this year, local APA planners and volunteers of the CAPP program, representatives from the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD), and graduate students from Portland State University in the Sustainable Cities and Regions course worked together to identify how best to prioritize Willamina’s infrastructure and community development issues that need to be addressed before real change can occur. This kind of development assistance can help a community delineate their resources and assets, and address where and what form future development should take.

Photo: Participants in the Community Assistance Planning Program (CAPP) discuss obstacles and solutions surrounding Willamina’s future development needs.

Through a two-day visioning exercise held in Willamina, the committee was able to identify several first steps to engage the community and support development. This included an economic plan to compile an inventory of all city-owned land and buildings for asset management, and work with ODOT to develop a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). By reaching out to Travel Oregon, the city intends to develop a tourism plan to promote hospitality, local trails, and cycle routes. Finally, the committee looked at creating community spaces as hubs for innovation including the Willamina Public Library and the West Valley Community Campus. More details on the CAPP program and recommendations can be found at the Willamina Visioning website compiled by graduate students at Portland State University.

Willamina has also obtained a competitive advantage by partnering with their fiber optic provider OnlineNW not only for infrastructure costs, but for community development as well. OnlineNW continues to facilitate workshops and events, and to invite guest lecturers into the community to encourage students and community members to think outside the box.

The fact that future development will require advanced infrastructure like gig development is inevitable. If rural communities want to partake in the next generation of development, fiber optic networks can provide a way to attract bigger businesses and entrepreneurs that want lifestyle amenities that more urban areas cannot provide.  The Willamina Visioning exercise affirmed that infrastructure based on archaic industries will need investment, and new planning schema will need to be put in place to direct future development. It will require investment in the community, especially if communities hope to attract and retain younger residents. Initiatives like the APA’s CAPP program, and the Innovate Willamina program are examples of how rural communities can begin the successful transition into the 21st century marketplace.
Aleisha Smith has a Graduate Certificate in Real Estate Development from Portland State University, and is currently a Real Estate Analyst at Holland Partner Group in Vancouver, WA.

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