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Creating Opportunity through Information Technology

by Fred D. Baldwin

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When a summer lightning storm zapped a crucial computer network component at Alleghany County Social Services in Sparta, North Carolina, the department's computers went down, idling 19 employees and jeopardizing their ability to get out Medicaid checks and food stamps. A call to the Blue Ridge Business Development Center (BDC), also in Sparta, brought a team of troubleshooters on the run. In less than two hours, BDC technicians had the system back up. "If that had happened before the BDC was here," says Sandra Ashley, director of social services, "we'd have probably been tied down for two weeks."

The Blue Ridge BDC is a nonprofit economic development organization serving a sparsely populated area where the eastern continental divide follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This area includes four North Carolina counties (Alleghany, Ashe, Wilkes, and Surry) and part of Grayson County, Virginia. What distinguishes the BDC from most other economic development organizations serving rural areas is its use of information technology (IT) as the principal vehicle for achieving its mission.

The BDC's origins go back to 1999, when a coalition of local governments and nonprofit organizations partnered with Wilkes Community College (WCC) to create a "cyber campus." This added distance-learning capabilities to the WCC Alleghany branch campus, in Sparta, linking it with WCC's main campus in Wilkesboro, about a 45-minute drive away. "Once we had the cyber campus in place and were seeing the ways technology could be used as an educational resource," says Patrick Woodie, BDC's executive director, "we began to turn our attention to using it to create economic opportunities."

A Three-Part Strategy

The timing was perfect. Private-sector sponsors were funding the development of the State of North Carolina's Rural Internet Access Authority (RIAA), also known as the e-NC initiative, to encourage affordable broadband Internet access in rural areas of the state. Competing for grant funds with more than 20 other organizations, the Sparta group laid out a three-part strategy for IT-based economic development:

  • training,
  • small-business development (including a business incubator), and
  • a plan for providing comprehensive IT support to a wide range of public and private organizations.

In the fall of 2001, the Sparta-based group received an RIAA "telecenter" grant and adopted its present name, the Blue Ridge Business Development Center.

Using funds from the RIAA grant, the Economic Development Administration, and the Appalachian Regional Commission, the BDC renovated a former sewing factory, a 43,000-square-foot building set on an eight-acre tract of hillside adjacent to the county high school. In June 2003 the renovated facility opened, equipped with top-of-the-line information and telecommunications technology, to serve as a base for all three elements of the BDC strategy.

Training. The Alleghany campus of WCC, a key partner in the original IT coalition, occupies about one-third of the new center's floor space. WCC administrative representative Kathryn Abernathy notes that WCC now has 17 classrooms, up from seven at its previous location, and the new facility has substantially enhanced WCC's distance-learning capabilities. Abernathy adds that WCC hopes to expand its partnership with the BDC to include an extensive IT program that would offer students work-study opportunities with the BDC.

The BDC also provides some introductory training to widely used software—such as Microsoft Word and Excel—directly to area organizations, including the public school system and the local hospital. WCC classes are available for those who need or want more in-depth training. The BDC also offers an open computer lab to the public during the week and on Saturdays.

Small-business development. A business incubator was high on the list of ideas that led to the BDC's formation, and the factory renovation was undertaken with that purpose in mind. The facility's offices and public areas would fit in at an upscale mountain resort—refinished hardwood floors, skylights, and a solarium where a loading dock once stood. Suite layout permits easy expansion as a business grows.

The BDC aggressively seeks out fledgling firms that offer resources to other Alleghany County businesses. Its initial business tenants were two graphic arts firms, Blue Ridge Graphics and Goosedown Graphics, the latter of which specializes in designing the kind of Web sites businesses need for secure financial transactions. More recent tenants include an accountant, an engineer, and a consultant who helps large companies develop sites for expansion or relocation. The Alleghany County JobLink Career Center, a nonprofit "one-stop" employment and training center, also has offices in the newly renovated building. The center provides employers with various labor-market services (e.g., screening applicants and administering proficiency tests) and helps job seekers with job searches.

Regional IT support. The most innovative element of the BDC economic development strategy is what technology services and resources director George Matuck calls an "IT department for our region." The concept grew out of talks with local business leaders, says Woodie, BDC executive director. "They were having to go out of this community for any kind of technology services because the expertise was simply not here locally. We saw this as a way of sustaining ourselves and recapturing lost revenue back into the community."

Now Matuck, a former IBM executive, leads a team able to exploit the capabilities of the BDC's impressive technology equipment. Pointing to one piece of electronics, Forrest Hamm, a BDC technology specialist, says, "We could run three counties off this one switch." Hamm also points to equipment resembling a VCR. It is actually a hard drive that can store 9.6 terabytes (a terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes) of data. "We could back up every server in Alleghany County and have plenty of room to spare," he says.

The emergency IT support that saved the day after lightning struck Alleghany County Social Services' network is just one example of the department's capabilities. Many local organizations—from public agencies to private business firms—contract with the BDC for a host of IT support services, not just emergency support.

"I wouldn't want to operate this system without [the BDC] being there," says Duane Davis, Alleghany County superintendent of schools. Davis estimates that the BDC saved the district "at least $80,000" in 2003. He also describes how BDC technical experts help train teachers to take full advantage of the Internet and other high-tech resources as they prepare lesson plans. He adds that teachers are willing to experiment because they know fast technical help is available from people who understand their needs.

The BDC's IT support for the area's regional library system, including 13 branch libraries in four counties, has enabled these libraries to maintain a high level of service despite budget cuts.

One of Alleghany County's largest private employers, NAPCO, has benefited from BDC's IT support services. NAPCO makes a variety of cardboard products: game boards, laminated three-ring binder notebooks, and jigsaw puzzles. Samples line its conference room walls: a Monopoly board, for example, and the first version of Trivial Pursuit. Although NAPCO currently has 85 employees (and at times as many as 200), the business is too small to make cost-effective use of an in-house IT staff. Still, downtime costs serious money, and the firm also needs periodic computer support to monitor production and to inform customers of the status of their orders. The BDC helps fill this need. "They know our operation," says Henry Hayes, NAPCO's director of administration and finance, "and what can help it run faster. They're constantly advising us on where we need to upgrade."

Helping Organizations Work Better

The BDC's IT capabilities offer other resources to local institutions. In 2004 Alleghany Memorial Hospital expects to contract with the BDC to allocate some of those terabytes of hard disk capacity. The hospital would use this hard disk space for secure offsite storage and automatic backup for its medical and financial records. Ralph Castillo, the hospital's chief financial officer, says the process will save money, strengthen privacy safeguards, and enhance the hospital's ability to comply with federal regulations governing patient access to medical records.

Although the BDC has only been in existence a short time, Woodie reports that the center has either directly created or played a key role in the creation of 42 new jobs. (This total includes some jobs for BDC staff, but the organization's IT work not only makes it self-sustaining, it also meets the goal of bringing back tech-support revenue that would otherwise flow out of the area.)

"We've got a lot of ideas," Matuck says, "and we can't do everything at once."

Maybe not, but the BDC helps a lot of other organizations do their work better. Woodie, Matuck, and the BDC staff understand that rapid exchange of information is crucial to regional development, but that the real power of information technology isn't only that it enables people to do the same things faster and cheaper. More important, IT can make new strategies—such as new educational opportunities in the schools and better customer support for businesses—feasible.

For example, the BDC's expanded facilities and IT capabilities are causing at least one local company to consider a dramatic change in its business model. Currently, this company markets its product in bulk to wholesalers, but its management sees an opportunity to profit from retail sales via the Internet. The renovated BDC building has open space well suited for warehousing and fulfilling small orders, and it has something that doesn't exist elsewhere in Alleghany County—computer resources for receiving and tracking orders online. If this idea materializes, it will in effect add a new business to an existing one, creating new jobs.

It's natural to use familiar physical metaphors to describe the virtual world created by information technology—"the information highway," for example. By contrast, the best way to explain the BDC's overall strategy is an analogy from the virtual world—a Web site's hyperlinks. These links enable users to jump instantly to relevant information, whether that information originates nearby or halfway around the world. Bit by bit, the agencies and businesses in the Blue Ridge Mountains are linking with each other and with outside customers and suppliers. The BDC's investment in technology is impressive, but what ties its efforts together is a vision of a region whose citizens and organizations can connect not just faster, but in new ways.

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.