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 (VCRD) 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 Wiâ?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.
Consider just a few examples:
â?¢ 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. It will be a key component for communication in future post-disaster situations and serves as a daily support for residents and visitors today.
â?¢ 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. More than 1,000 Vermonters, including senior citizens, small business owners, and people looking for work, received one-on-one digital skills training through the program.
â?¢ 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.
â?¢ Front Porch Forum produced community calendars for towns throughout the state and neighbors have shared hundreds of thousands of queries, comments, and observations.
â?¢ Towns have a new template for creating municipal websites that are easy to customize and maintain. These are already linking residents with timely information such as meeting minutes and alerting them to pending area emergencies.
â?¢ The nonprofit Black River Historical Society in Ludlow boosted donations and auction bids through an app that lets its iPad process credit cards at remote events.
â?¢ The newly-launched Bridport Creamery developed its e-commerce website to assure its artisan cheeses can reach the niche market it has targeted.
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. We hope the models in the final report will help jump start new approaches not just in our small towns, but across rural America. 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. Doing so builds local momentum, excitement and dynamic opportunity--so vital to the future of rural Vermont!
The project is winding down, but the ideas are just a beginning, and community action with digital tools is going viral.
To view the report, find detailed how-to guides, and take a virtual tour of the stories across the state visit www.vtrural.org.
Paul Costello is the Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. Project partners included IBM, the Snelling Center for Government, the Vermont Department of Libraries, the Vermont Small Business Development Center, Microsoft, Front Porch Forum, and the Vermont State Colleges.