Tallahassee ingenuity

An all too modern problem has been troubling Tallahassee, Fla., Mayor Pro-Tem

Steve Meisburg: His city, the state capital, ranks as the most computer-savvy

in Florida, but still too many residents were getting left behind by technology

particularly in minority and disadvantaged neighborhoods.

"The further we put off addressing this issue," Meisburg said, "the

more we knew it was going to cost us, probably in hundreds of ways, down

the road."

He knew some things were holding back residents: Many were intimidated

about taking classes, and of those who wanted to, many didn't have the money

or the transportation to do so.

His solution: Instead of spending time and resources trying to get people

to technology training, the city would help bring the training to the people.

They would set up technology learning centers in the heart of Tallahassee's

most disadvantaged neighborhoods.

In August, city officials were poised to take the first step toward

this goal, finalizing the purchase of a home in Apalachee Ridge Estates,

one of several so-called at-risk neighborhoods on the city's south side.

The area is no stranger to high crime rates, teenage pregnancy, unemployment

and a sagging sense of well-being.

The house, after an interior renovation, will become a local training

center for adults and schoolchildren. The city is planning 15 to 20 workstations,

instructor-led information technology courses, online coursework, GED preparation,

one-on-one sessions with mentors who live or used to live in the neighborhood,

and group classes on how to start a business, family communications, literacy

and more.

"It's important to pair the computer training with some of the life

skills that help ensure success in the business world," explained Mick Everall,

Tallahassee's manager of new business and product development. "In the past,

the community has had the problem of children having children, so we have

to reach back a couple of generations and teach them the basics."

Much of the training will include online coursework on computers, with

instructors and mentors on hand for help. The city has a wealth of subject

matter available for go-at-your-own-pace learning, thanks to its Learnitnow.net

program (see box, Page 9). These include computer and Internet basics; office

software such as Microsoft Corp. Word, PowerPoint and Exchange and Intuit

Inc.'s Quicken; and entrepreneurial courses such as financing options and

licensing requirements for businesses.

Meisburg and Everall see the neighborhood center as a place where children

without home computers could do computer-related homework. And adults could

take advantage of e-mail, online banking and shopping, job postings, and

more.

Users will be invited to tap into resources and databases at county

libraries and at nearby Florida State University and Florida A&M University.

Residents who opt to start a new business or those looking for a job can

even post advertisements or resumes on Web pages that the center will ho"It

will be a community center of sorts," Meisburg said. "But one centered around

computers and learning."

Perry West, president of the Apalachee Ridge Estates Neighborhood Association,

said the neighborhood's 1,000 or so residents are excited about the new

center and are clamoring for details and sign-up sheets.

Tallahassee officials hope to build on that enthusiasm with additional

incentives. One proposed program would give a used city-owned computer and

a year of free Internet access to anyone who completes a set number of courses.

"Instead of just dropping a computer into everybody's home, we're giving

it to somebody who's already shown an interest and has become basically

proficient," Everall said.

If the Apalachee Ridge technology house works well, officials hope to

develop similar centers in about 20 other disadvantaged neighborhoods.

One reason the city chose Apalachee Ridge as the first site was because

it had a strong and active neighborhood association, as well as long-term

revitalization plans that feature road improvements, economic development

and beautification efforts. "Those types of factors do make a difference

in things like this," Everall said.

Of course, there are plenty of challenges involved in introducing a

technology center into the middle of a residential area, said Meisburg,

most of them legal and political. An issue closer to home involves access.

"Having a center like this in the middle of a neighborhood is going to attract

attention and could create a situation where people are coming and going

at hours that the neighbors might not be comfortable with," Meisburg said.

Still, the potential benefits overshadow any bureaucratic difficulties,

Everall said. "We are giving people a chance to learn about technology in

an atmosphere that they know and feel comfortable with," he explained. "It

takes away all those barriers to learning that they faced before, and [it]

will hopefully allow them to catch up and keep pace with those who already

have easy access to technology."

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached

at hbhayes@cfw.com.

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