A New Civic Center
- By Brian Robinson
- Dec 05, 1999
Officials of Clackamas County, a largely rural area south of Portland, Ore., say they have found a solution to a problem that plagues many of its residents and eventually threatens to dampen the local economy.
Each day, more than 60 percent of Clackamas residents travel out of the county 50 miles or more to get to work. If this continues, the county can look forward to increased damage to roads, more traffic congestion and pollution, and a major loss in income as working residents spend their daily dollars beyond the county's borders.
Such problems are common in rural areas where economic realities force residents to seek jobs outside their hometowns. The challenge rests in keeping those problems from eroding county populations and drawing even more money away from local businesses.
Clackamas officials say they have found at least a part of the answer in what is known as telecommunities. A telecommunity is a community center that offers a mix of technology resources and services-including Internet access, videoconferencing and online training-to enable its residents to work remotely instead of commuting. The centers also give residents access to technology training, meeting rooms and other business-related services.
County officials hope setting up such centers will persuade a sizable portion of those commuters, as well as Clackamas-based businesses, to stay within the county.
"We became aware of the problems when we updated our economic development plan in 1997," said Renate Mengelberg, a senior business and economic development planner in Clackamas' Transportation and Development Department. "We quickly identified telecommunities as one way to give people who commute a place to work nearer their homes and to support at-home workers with services not typically found in small offices."
One of the county's towns, Molalla, should have its telecommunity center running by the end of the year, and other cities have expressed interest in the concept.
Two percent to 4 percent of the American work force telecommuted in 1997, according to the U.S. Transportation Department, and that is expected to grow to 5 percent to 10 percent in 2002.
Various states have recognized the advantages of telecommuting and have built incentives into legislation to increase its use. Oregon, for example, offers a 35 percent state tax credit and low-interest loans for equipment to businesses that enable telecommuting for their workers. State agencies also are required to promote smart commuting to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled.
Other states are following this example. Legislation was introduced in the New Jersey state assembly last year that would provide corporate business tax and gross income tax credits for employers that allow employees to telecommute. And in California, a state senate antipollution bill that includes incentives for telecommuting appears likely to pass.
"We began dabbling with tax credits [for energy conservation and pollution control] in 1991," said Kathy King, transportation program manager in Oregon's Energy Department. "But we marketed it conservatively for the first couple of years because we really didn't know how it would be accepted. Then we really began pushing the idea in 1993. Some 4,000 companies used the tax program, and we surveyed them to see for what it could best be used. They told us that telecommuting was far and away the best use."
However, King said, the state is not promoting the building of telework centers-buildings used solely for telecommuting. With more and more people owning their own computers, such centers tend to be underutilized and costly, she said.
Instead, the state is looking to promote telecommunity centers, in which costs can be spread over the aggregate demand for a range of services.
Molalla, a small town of about 5,000 people, is making its telecommunity center part of a new 10,000-square-foot library. The center will have computers with high-speed Internet access and space for videoconferencing and distance-learning classes. Offices also will be available for business travelers to set up their laptop computers, said city librarian Randy Collver.
Collver said one advantage of telecommunities is their ability to communicate with others far away. "For any community to compete in the 21st century, [it] will need rapid communications with the rest of the world to be able to attract people to come and live there," he said.
For that reason, he said, "anything we can do to facilitate access to the kinds of resources the telecommunity center will offer is good for the community."
However, the Molalla center will not be designed for that, Collver said. Everything he has read about telecommuting centers show they will be superseded by home-based PCs, he said, so the library center will offer a place for people to try out telecommuting and get training before deciding if they want to do it at home.
The center will provide things such as color printers and software that home-office and small-business users do not usually have. The library also will try to support community PC users with dial-in access so that they can retrieve scanned-in documents or images online.
Collver said distance learning will be one of the most vital services the Molalla center offers.
"It's essential," he said. "In a small community, where people can't often get out to go to seminars and classes elsewhere, they can come to the library, and we can download workshops and seminars and have them available here for them."
Some of the upfront costs in setting up the telecommunity center will be paid for by a $36,000 grant from the state. Ongoing costs will be incorporated into the center's long-term budget, Collver said, a decision made easier by the fact that he sees the center "as an essential part of what a complete library will be in the 21st century."
Molalla is a prime example of something Mengelberg said Clackamas County has discovered as it investigates telecommunities elsewhere throughout the United States.
"You need a champion for these telecommunity projects," she said. "You have that in Molalla with the librarian, who sees it as an extension of his normal library services, and so he has been prepared to do all the legwork, advertise it to people and so on. Without a strong commitment by one organization, you tend to get problems. We definitely underestimated the importance of that."
Mengelberg said it is obvious that other communities in the county see the need for the kind of telecommunications services a telecommunity can provide, and several have come to the county government to learn what Clackamas is doing.
One is the town of Estacada, where Kevin Nadzam, technology coordinator for the town's school district, said he has seen a large demand from local business for the kinds of services a center could provide."Estacada is an agrarian-based economy, so we don't have so many people who drive into Portland or elsewhere to work," he said. "But we have lots of people who would want to come and use a PC and the Internet. There's certainly a demand for that, just in the distance-learning courses for schools."
Whatever its problems, Mengelberg said, it is obvious that telecommunities are here to stay for Clackamas and other rural and remote areas.
Because of this, a broad goal of the Clackamas County Telecommunity Project Team-which began in January and is staffed by Mengelberg and other county government officials, business representatives and consultants-is defining a business "template" that could be used as a basis for building telecommunities throughout the county or even statewide.
Nevada, Mo., may have been the first town in the country to think about building a telecommunity.
Its biggest employer, the Nevada State Hospital, closed eight years ago and the city was left looking desperately for a way to attract investment and new jobs. Rather than trying to bring in a new large employer, which it considered improbable, the town decided to make itself into a place that small businesses and telecommuters would want to locate to.
Officials realized that if telecommuting were to take hold, the city had to provide an attractive telecommunications base. Part of their solution was to build a "televillage," a housing development in which energy-efficient houses are fitted with optical fiber that can provide the fast Internet connections telecommuters need.
A telecommunity center is located in the closed hospital's old drug-and-alcohol treatment center. It is stuffed with computers, scanners, printers and videoconference equipment, all hooked up to the outside world through fast communications lines. It also contains conference rooms and classrooms for distance training and education.
Putting all of that together was not a smooth process, said Bob Davis, secretary of the Nevada Telecommunity Development Corp. The initial developer for the televillage did not come up to scratch, so a new one had to be found, and the first of the ultramodern telecommuter homes are being completed just now.
"It took years for the community to buy in to this," Davis said. "We had to organize things at a grass roots level and determine just what people wanted from all of this and who would use it. We constantly had to go back to the people in the community to educate and inform them."
The latest addition is the Ozark Building, a $900,000 renovation project designed to provide businesses and organizations that lease space with all of the high-tech services they need to operate in the Online Age. So far, the building has no tenants, though Davis said the city may be close to signing several.
Though the city has begun to market the project, it's been slow going so far. Until a critical mass is reached, Davis said, it will continue to be slow.
"We're building this community a brick at a time," he said. "But we don't see any other way to go. The real hope for the future of smaller communities such as our own is these smaller, communication-oriented entrepreneurs."
-- Brian Robinson is a free-lance journalist based in Portland, Ore.
What Is a Telecommunity?
In putting together initial plans to become a telecommunications player, Clackamas County, Ore., commissioned research to see what other communities had done to become tech-savvy. The research produced a variety of definitions that laid out some of the similarities and differences in the current crop of telecentric programs.
* Telecommunity Center: A partnership among public- and private-sector employers, educational institutions and the community, with the purpose of providing access to technology, distance learning and customized training, and used as a meeting place for various groups and as a base for teleconferences, community information and business services.
* Telecommuting Center: A resource that provides telecommuters with computers, office equipment and support in a professional work space.
* Executive Suites: Similar to telecommuting centers, a resource that caters to a broader base of users such as entrepreneurs, accountants, regional sales representatives and consultants. It shares services and administrative support that might be expected from a company's main office.
* Telecottages: Telecommuting centers located in rural communities and originating in Great Britain and Scandinavia as a way of bringing technology and computer software skills to rural citizens.
* Televillages: A collection of homes each equipped with an internal network connected to a community network, which in turn is connected through broadband links to the outside world.