If you drive for 45 minutes up the back road from Goldendale toward Trout Lake in Klickitat County, you’ll pass through Glenwood, set in its scenic valley at the base of Mount Adams, where the pastures begin to give way to pine trees, some 35 miles north of the Columbia River.
If you pass through in June, you might catch the local rodeo, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year over Father’s Day. Maybe you’ll stop at The Shade Tree for gas, that being the name of the biggest business in town, a combination hotel/cafe/gas station/convenience store. There’s a post office and a small grocery, and there used to be a tavern, but that’s gone now.
There might be more elk than school kids in the Glenwood Valley—one recent count put the school’s enrollment, K–12, at 62 children. Somewhere between 500 and 700 people live in the area, ranchers and loggers mostly, people trying to make a living amid beautiful, peaceful—and isolated—surroundings.
It would be just that much easier to do that, says Ava Van Velsor, a WSU Extension coordinator in Klickitat County, if only they had access to high-speed Internet.
“We have craftsmen in the area that want to sell goods via Web sites,” she says, “and people who are providing services locally who’d like to advertise on the Web.” There’s no local bank or clothing stores—folks would like to do that kind of business online. The sheriff’s and fire departments would like a Web-based 911 system, to replace cell phones and radios that are prone to losing signals in the Cascades foothills.
But so far, no telecom providers have been willing to extend high-speed fibers up the Glenwood Highway from Goldendale to serve the isolated community. Advocates say it doesn’t pencil out for private-sector providers; there aren’t enough customers to justify the cost.
“There’s just not enough ROI [return on investment] and spare capital in this world,” says Joe Poire, executive director of the Port of Whitman in Colfax, who’s been a leader in rural broadband development in Washington.
That could be about to change. The Obama administration’s economic stimulus package, approved by Congress back in February, includes two separate pools of money totaling more than $8 billion to extend broadband connections to places like Glenwood across the United States. Washington communities may have a leg up in qualifying for those funds, due to a WSU Extension program that over the past eight years has worked to get broadband access to rural communities, and help those communities to capitalize on it.
“We have to make sure we don’t just throw a piece of a solution at the community,” says Monica Babine, who coordinates the Rural Bridges program for the Extension service’s Center to Bridge the Digital Divide. “And make sure we don’t create a field of dreams where no one comes.”
The center was set up by Extension in 2001, and it’s managed to attract about $3 million a year in outside grant money to sustain itself since. The Rural Bridges program is one of its three major efforts, the others being studies of global telecom networks and of the future of digital communications.
It’s had some high-profile successes, including a customer-service call center that Seattle-based Washington Dental Service has established in Colville. Total employment there has climbed to close to 100, making it one of Stevens County’s major employers.
In economic development, attracting big companies that employ hundreds of people makes headlines, but that’s often not what a small town really needs, says Poire. A company looking for 300 workers—even 75—will overwhelm many small towns, which don’t have the manpower or resources to support them, he says. “The first thing they’ll ask is ‘where’s the workforce?’”
But when you bring in a small, family-owned business that can fill up a vacant storefront, buy goods and services from existing business, and hire a handful of local residents, that’s a good fit for just about any small town between Ilwaco and Asotin. “That’s perfect,” he says.
The Rural Bridges program has helped out with those small projects as well, in places like Forks, a town of 3,000 isolated on the Olympic Peninsula. Forks has a fully capable broadband telecom center in town, thanks to a grant from Congress in 2000 that created a pilot program to show how rural schools could use and benefit from having broadband access. A Gates Foundation grant helped pay for training local people in how to use the hardware, once it was installed.
Since then, Forks has seen a steady trickle of small start-up businesses: A software entrepreneur and local health-care specialists banded together to provide services to a group of hospitals too small to hire them individually. One Spanish-speaking woman was able to keep her job as a California legal translator when she moved to Forks, because the high-speed Internet service was in place; she was so successful that community leaders started recruiting Spanish-speakers from the growing Latino population; WSU Extension service helped Peninsula College in Port Angeles set up a training program for the interpreters at a Forks branch campus.
The list of projects goes on, says Rod Fleck, the Forks city attorney and planner: A custom sawmill wins new business because it has Internet access. And Forks was able to keep 16 jobs after a local Department of Social and Health Services office burned, because it had a community center hard-wired for broadband.
Even tourism has benefited. Forks is the setting for the popular Twilight series—teen novels (and now movies) about forbidden love between a vampire and a local high school girl. Fans of the stories have been coming to visit, and having the high-speed data links means local hotels can offer on-line reservation services, just like in the big cities.
“What broadband provides to rural residents is, it allows them to expand their market beyond their local communities,” says Babine. “They have great ideas, they have great products and services, but they don’t have a local customer base. It [broadband] allows them new opportunities to do business in the communities they want to live in.”
Rural counties clearly need some kind of help. In February, Washington’s jobless rate spiked to 8.4 percent, the highest rate the state had seen since the recession of the mid-’80s. At the time, 21 of Washington’s 39 counties reported double-digit unemployment rates, all but one of them outside the state’s urban centers. Rural joblessness was high on both sides of the Cascades. On the eastside, Ferry and Stevens reported unemployment greater than 14 percent; on the coast, Wahkiakum, Pacific, and Cowlitz counties did, too.
Most of these rural counties rely on either the timber or paper industries for a significant portion of their jobs. The national housing slump has crushed demand for timber, which has led to widespread layoffs for both loggers and mill workers. And with fewer sawmills cutting up trees, there are fewer wood chips to be made into paper, which has led to more plant closings.
The rural broadband initiative grows out of an Obama campaign pledge to try to help rural America. With the billions of dollars that will be involved, companies will be able to do a lot, says Poire. The Port of Whitman, for example, has spent $1.4 million over the past five years running high-speed fibers to 16 Whitman County farm towns, and it now leases those lines to private telecom service providers. Washington’s share of the stimulus money should pay for scores, if not hundreds, of similar projects.
It will be a mad scramble for communities to implement the stimulus plans, Fleck warns. Yet the stimulus legislation requires these projects to have the many necessary permits an
d be underway by August.
At the same time, small-town mayors and planners who are wrestling with broadband issues are getting flooded with paperwork related to other stimulus bill provisions. “It’s going to be a challenge,” Fleck said last spring.
But—in part because of WSU’s involvement in rural broadband issues—the state’s in good shape to act this year, once the stimulus money is released. The system to administer the funding is already in place, Babine says.
“We wanted to have our big catcher’s mitt ready,” she says. “States that have an entity in place working on broadband are going to be shovel-ready, if you will.”
And communities like Forks and Glenwood should end up being models for how the nation moves forward, she adds. In each case, the communities came together under local leadership to figure out what they could do with broadband service once it got there. That kind of local planning should pay off now. The plan is in place; all they need is the money.
Not everyone’s convinced this should be a national priority. On a national level, some economists argue that those billions of dollars would be better-spent on projects that would benefit greater numbers of people, instead of a few hundred here or a couple thousand there in rural pockets scattered across America’s hinterlands.
But Washington rural advocates say their citizens have every right to the same basic services that city-dwellers have.
“One’s ZIP code shouldn’t limit one’s education, business, health, recreation, or government interaction,” Fleck says.
“We’re going to see a blossoming of opportunities in some rural areas that are having and have continually had challenges to their economic base.”
Van Velsor and the people in Glenwood agree.
“Our take, as a community, is that this is becoming an essential and basic need for folks. The way society and education and work is all turning, if we’re left behind, we’re truly becoming more of a burden instead of being able to grow as communities ourselves.”