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Costello: Digital innovation brings new vitality to rural Vermont

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2014-12-17

When we think of Vermont, we picture our beautiful working landscape, our lakes and mountains, and our dynamic community centers. Our past is crucial to who we are and to the character and identity of this special place. But the land we care for and our beautiful downtowns are actually the result of waves of past innovation, a repository of our historical creativity.

Today we see a resurgence in that innovation in the context of international markets and global challenges. Vermont's tech companies like Dealer.com and MyWebGrocer are well-publicized success stories. But now, lower entry costs and greater broadband availability are combining to bring remarkable opportunities to Main Street that we are just starting to discover.

Many of these are highlighted in "Vermont's Digital Stories," a final report from the Vermont Council on Rural Development about its Vermont Digital Economy Project. The lessons we learned through this two-year initiative make it clear: Bridging the digital divide and expanding the innovative use of online tools will remain critical for Vermont if it wants to continue build resilience into our communities, keep businesses competitive, and assure that community organizations work more effectively throughout the state.

With investment from the US Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration, VCRD provided 50 of Vermont's most flood-damaged towns with services that helped speed recovery, spur economic development and job growth, and improve disaster preparedness. The project increased digital literacy and online workforce training, added 26 downtown Wi Fi zones, created 25 new town websites, and provided customized training for hundreds of small businesses and nonprofit organizations. It also brought Front Porch Forum to every town, making Vermont the only state in the nation with online community social networks everywhere.

The result of the Digital Economy Project is an extensive resource of field-tested ways to adapt today's digital tools to settings throughout the Green Mountain state.

Bethel brought together the downtown business association, the municipal government, and the local school system to create a Wi-Fi zone that extends through much of its flood-impacted riverfront downtown.

A unique partnership between the Community College of Vermont and the State Department of Libraries placed college students in 24 local libraries to help bridge the digital divide.

Among the hundreds of businesses served, the co-founder of an organic, draft-animal powered family farm is using his iPad and a mobile app to help map his daily logging plan and develop a cooperative network to meet the surging demand for sustainably harvested logs.

Front Porch Forum produced community calendars for towns throughout the state and neighbors have shared hundreds of thousands of queries, comments, and observations.

We're also sharing what we've learned through online step-by-step guides for activities like setting up a downtown Wi-Fi system.

VCRD and our partners have put a spotlight on the potential of the Internet for rural community and economic development. Vermonters are using the power of the Internet to support many of our cornerstone values: community, mutual support, creative entrepreneurism, farm and forest enterprise, and strong downtowns.

The project is winding down, but the ideas are just a beginning. To view the report, find detailed how-to guides, visit www.vtrural.org.

Paul Costello is the Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.