Rebirth of the Small Town

By Darby Patterson
Center for Digital Government

Once, small communities in America thrived on traditional economies. There were lumber mills that supported hundreds of families; fishing and canning industries; agricultural and textile centers. Some communities were so dependent on a single industry that they became known as “company towns.” However, once the company closed its doors, they edged closer to becoming ghost towns.

Over the decades, many time-tested economies disappeared, some quietly, others – like the logging industry – disappeared behind a barrage of headlines and civil unrest. But, no matter what the regional industry was, people lost more than jobs. They lost a way of life, a personal identity and, sometimes, a heritage. Workers who knew nothing except a trade that had often been passed down in their families, found themselves without options.

Ironically, some towns and small cities that thrived and died in the Industrial Age, are being reborn in the Information Age. Many state governments have launched efforts to attract information technology companies to rural areas that no longer have an economic base. The development of “cyber centers,” enterprise zones and community technology centers can breathe new life into dying towns.

It is the development of electronic government that is fueling this renaissance. The effort rides on the wings of government’s commitment to bridge the digital divide. It is the hope that people everywhere, regardless of where they live or what their income level is, will be able to reap the benefits of electronic government. After all, it is the mandate of America’s democracy that all people be included in opportunities and decisions in the public sector. In this egalitarian environment, government is required to reach out to people isolated by geography, economics and education. The development of cyber centers is a step toward this goal.

In Wyoming, Gov. Jim Geringer committed to building fiber optic links to communities that were rooted in coal mining, ranching and rail traffic. Not only are these traditional activities on the decline, but, due to a lack of bandwidth, existing businesses cannot take advantage of e-commerce activities. Increased fiber optic access will not only support ongoing business activities, but will also diversity the economy by introducing high tech jobs and opportunities.
One of most remarkable stories of how information technology can facilitate the turnaround of troubled economies comes out of Canada. In the Province of New Brunswick, the former Prime Minister Frank McKenna was concerned about ongoing double-digit unemployment. He formed a partnership with the local telephone company to build an infrastructure that would take the economy from its fishing and logging base to high tech industries. The result was the first fully digital network in North America. But, more importantly, unemployment rates have plummeted and New Brunswick’s population has a bright economic future.

The project began with education. Knowing that a skilled workforce would be critical to attracting high tech companies, McKenna directed that technology education be woven into school programs. At the same time, he set about recruiting the world’s top IT companies. The province is host to dozens of “call centers” for major companies such as Air Canada, Swiss Air, Avis and the American Association of Retired Persons.

New Brunswick’s economy spiraled upward, not only greatly reducing unemployment but also cutting thousands of names from the province’s welfare rolls. In addition, the budget has been balanced for the past seven years. However, according to McKenna these results are secondary to another; “More importantly, the people have their pride back,” he said. “We are nothing short of a miracle.”

All over America, government leaders are looking for a similar “miracle.” Partnerships are being formed among state and local governments, educational institutions and private sector businesses to develop cyber centers that bring communities into the 21st century. Before the dawn of the Information Age and the implementation of digital government, options for economically distresses towns and rural communities were limited.

Electronic government holds the potential for far more than online services to citizens and businesses. It can form the fabric of a community and contribute to its social, cultural and economic future. Information technology has made location, largely irrelevant. What matters in the digital world is a skilled and educated workforce, and leadership that focuses not on technology, but on a vision of the digital future.

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