In Underserved Communities, Small Numbers Can Add Up to Big Econ Dev Wins

Tennessee has a big-time gigabit winner. No, not them, Pulaski. Sure, Chattanooga gets a mountain of media coverage. But Pulaski, TN is no slouch in the success department, even if many people don’t know them. However, the town measures success in small numbers.

One of the on-going discussions regarding broadband and economic development is, do we focus more resources initially on trying to attract new business, or on improving the businesses we already have. The media tends to give more coverage to attracting new companies, probably because a company bringing 1000 new jobs is big news.

Similar to many small towns and rural counties, Pulaski’s emphasis is more on existing business. “The golden rule of economic development is, take care of what you got,” states Dan Speer, Executive Director of the Pulaski Giles County Economic Development Council. Take care of your existing companies first. There’s no question they will use it. If you’re lucky enough to get a company to come in because of the broadband, then that’s gravy.”

Think big, but start small

45% of the Pulaski-Giles County’s population is self-employed. 94.2% of the businesses have nine or fewer employees. These small businesses can see a notable improvement in sales leads pretty soon after moving to a network with speeds in the tens of megabits per second. 

Pulaski’s public utility-owned network originally was dial-up. Over time the network’s speed increased, and eventually the utility built a fiber net.

As the economy started its downturn in 2008, Pulaski mostly ignored the lure of chasing big fish. Speer recalls, “we focused a lot of attention on our existing retail base and on entrepreneur development. We taught businesses how to maximize their use of the network so they could broaden their customer base nationally through the Internet.” The county still keeps an eye out for the opportunity for a major score. A Frito-Lay facility is here, as is Johnson Controls, so there is a precedent for the occasional “big win.”

Pulaski Giles turned to the Rural Policy Research Institute’s Center for Rural Entrepreneurship for assistance helping businesses maximize the network. They provided a series of Webinars, one-month courses on Internet basics such as using e-mail and the Web for research and other training programs, and help identifying and nurturing entrepreneurial skills such as marketing.

His staff also learned that they have to think in terms of hitting more singles and doubles rather than home runs. The goal is to try to regularly create two or three new jobs per businesses rather than just 30 or 40. Getting 10 new jobs is a big deal.

Playing to the base

With many small communities that have been ignored by large telecom companies, getting network subscribers is relatively easy at first because there is such great pent up demand. Businesses in these communities already understand the value of the Internet.

Pulaski Giles did surveys to understand more about what businesses needed, and then developed a marketing plan for the network. “The price point for services are low, but we don’t use that as the main marketing message,” says Speer. “We emphasized to subscribers that we appreciate them doing business with us. They subsequently respond faster. We also emphasize that we’re building a community around the network. We carry local events on video, plus we dedicated a channel to the local college for whatever programming they want to do. If you want be part of this online community, you have to subscribe.”

Training business owners how to use the Internet significantly impacts success. Speer advises that “First, you make training available where adult education occurs, which for us is in career centers and technology centers. When a plant  closed, we made a direct pitch to these workers to take the courses.” The International Commission on Workforce Development partnered with Microsoft to offer workers skills training so they could pass the various Microsoft certification programs.

You have to explore ways to offer these kinds of services inexpensively because the people who need the technology the most can’t afford expensive training. for example, by delivering training over the network to the schools, the potential to get these teachers to use the technology for adults as well as kids is unlimited.

Here’s another article about the value of thinking small, which tells the story of Three Lakes, WI’s success. When you can step away from all the hype that “everybody needs a gig,” and put stories about communities that lure big companies to town into perspective, it’s easier to develop broadband solutions to economic development challenges. Solve the query, what measure of success fits our community’s situation, not Chattanooga’s?

4 Responses

  1. well said sir – congrats! With the sale of Patch – hyper-local has lost its allure – again – for the 3rd time.

  2. Craig, thanks for giving attention to the small town success stories. [BTW, Center for Rural Entrepreneurship link is broken.]

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