A New Vision of Economic Development

 

Photo by Drew C. Wilson of the Wilson Times


I attended a forum in Wilson, North Carolina last week that talked about how fiber is transforming their city. They talked about how they are trying a new model for economic development.

The traditional economic development model concentrated on searching for big piles of jobs. Communities made efforts to attract major employers and worked hard to keep companies from leaving their town. But it’s pretty obvious when looking around rural America that this model stopped working somewhere along the line. I visit far too many communities that have lost big employers and that are not finding anybody to replace them. This is due to some degree to the overall huge decrease in US manufacturing jobs. But it also is due in part to the general decline of businesses located in smaller communities.

Wilson is a community of around 50,000. Historically the city was known as the ‘world’s greatest tobacco market’ in the 19th century and tobacco was huge in the area until a few decades ago. Wilson was also the birthplace to BB&T bank, which is still the largest employer in the city. But like happened with many US cities, Wilson also went through a decline. Some small manufacturers closed and the tobacco business died. In a scene that is familiar across the country the downtown business district dried-up as retail moved to other places.

Wilson started its fiber optic business in 2008 under the tradename of Greenlight. They were one of the first cities in the country to offer gigabit broadband to residents. And that fiber network was the linchpin for the city in developing their new vision of economic development.

The concept behind Wilson’s vision sounds simple. They figure that that the best way to attract jobs to the community is by working to make their community a place where people want to live. They want visitors to the city to like it enough that some of them will want to move there. And they figure that when they reach that goal that businesses will naturally want to locate there. So they are looking to grow their economy by concentrating on and improving the assets they already have.

Of course, this is anything but simple. Many cities have tried this and only a few have found a way to rebound from the decaying downtowns we see all over the country. Wilson is making the turn by concentrating on the downtown area. They lured the Wilson Times, a local daily newspaper, to refurbish an old building and move back into downtown. They raised the money to renovate an old theater to create the Edna Boykin Cultural Center. There is a project to build new housing downtown next to the whirligig park (the picture accompanying this blog). They attracted Peak Demand to make a $2.6 M investment to manufacture electrical components in an old tobacco processing plant. And these investments are bringing back other businesses. There are new restaurants and two brew pubs that have opened in the downtown.

Wilson is using an approach that other cities should consider. They involve all of the stakeholders in the community in the effort to improve quality of life there. That includes working with Barton College, a 1,200-student liberal arts university and nursing school. They challenged the arts community to move and grow downtown and have a thriving art scene. They put an emphasis on buying local, which we all know has a tremendous local economic multiplier effect. The various constituencies in the city meet often to discuss ways to make the city better.

But they credit the fiber network for being the change that started everything. While big companies and big employers are important to every community, Wilson understood that the work-from-home entrepreneur movement is creating a lot of jobs and a lot of wealth. And so they foster innovation in a number of different ways and strive to make small and new businesses successful.

The big shame is that the North Carolina legislature passed a law to prohibit other communities in the state from following the Wilson model. Cities are no longer allowed to become retail ISPs in North Carolina. If they build fiber it has to be operated by somebody else – and we know that is a far harder model to make work. One only has to look at what’s happening in Wilson to understand that fiber is an important component these days for economic vitality. But fiber alone is not a guarantee for economic success. It takes a community-wide effort like the one in Wilson to take advantage of what fiber offers. Wilson still has a way to go, but you can feel the excitement in the community – and that is what makes any city a place where people want to live.

The Plight of Pinetops, North Carolina

pinetopsnc-640x125Most of my readers are probably aware that last year the FCC voted to overturn the restrictions on municipal competition in Tennessee and North Carolina. Specifically, the FCC gave permission to the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga and to the City of Wilson, North Carolina to extend their fiber networks to provide broadband to nearby communities.

But both states appealed the FCC decision and this past August the courts overturned the FCC order in favor of the states. The FCC has decided to not appeal that court decision.

During the time when the FCC order was in effect, the City of Wilson extended their Greenlight fiber network and brought fiber to the tiny town of Pinetops, NC. This is a small town that had a population of 1,374 in the 2010 US Census. When the Courts overturned the FCC rules, Wilson’s City Attorney interpreted the reversal of the FCC ruling to mean that Wilson had no authority to serve broadband in Pinetops.

The local governments of both Wilson and Pinetops have appealed to Governor Pat McCrory to allow the broadband service to continue. The mayor of Pinetops reports that 31% of the households in his community are below the poverty line and that the network had brought the opportunity for the town to do better economically. The town has been hoping to grow by attracting new residents.

In the telecom world we are often faced with similar situations, where the industry will react to a regulatory ruling that might eventually be overturned. We just saw this recently as the FCC took actions related to net neutrality in 2016 at the same time that the net neutrality rules were under appeal. The large incumbent telcos and cable companies routinely appeal decisions they don’t like from the FCC, and it has become somewhat common practice for parties to act as if the new rules are in effect, even during the appeal process.

It seems that Chattanooga took a conservative approach and did not expand their network, waiting for a resolution of the Court appeal. But Wilson expanded their network when the FCC said they had the right to do so, with the uncomfortable result that we now have a  small town that has lost access to fast broadband. Customers have been disconnected as Wilson turned off the network.

One would hope that the powers-to-be can find a way to keep the broadband going in Pinetops. It’s very easy for lawmakers and regulators who live in urban areas with good broadband to fail to understand how hard it is for rural households to live without broadband. It’s particularly cruel to provide broadband to a small town like Pinetops and then withdraw it.

Wilson constructed the network using regulations that were in place at the time of the construction. It’s also true that today, after the appeal the same fiber construction would no longer be allowed.  But common sense would say to grandfather the broadband in Pinetops while restricting Wilson from constructing fiber to any additional communities.

Unfortunately, common sense often doesn’t prevail in these situations. I’m sure that AT&T and Comcast have put pressure on the state to rollback the broadband, even if those companies are not providing a decent alternative in Pinetops. But these big companies have taken the position that all competition is bad and they take extraordinary measures to stop competition when they can. I just hope that somebody in North Carolina uses some common sense and compassion to let the folks in Pinetops keep the broadband they were recently given. To not do so would be inhumane. It would be surreal if the people in Pinetops are denied broadband when the fiber is already on their streets or connected to their homes.