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Cool & Connected program offers Erwin direction

By Brad Hicks

The experts agree Erwin possesses a number of assets that place it ahead of the pack in terms of ability to draw businesses and professionals to its downtown district.

These experts now intend to help the town utilize what is perhaps its key asset – access to high-speed broadband services – to attract talented workers and enhance Erwin’s economy.

Last year, Erwin was selected to receive planning assistance through Cool & Connected, a planning assistance program that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, “helps community members develop strategies and an action plan for using broadband to create walkable, connected, economically vibrant main streets and small-town neighborhoods that improve human health and the environment. Communities can combine broadband service with other local assets such as cultural and recreational amenities to attract investment and people, including young people, and diversify local economies.” 

Cool & Connected is sponsored by the EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Through the Cool & Connected program, a team of experts was brought in to assess what Erwin has to offer, what could be done to bolster economic development, and to develop a plan of action to help the area accomplish its goals. 

Local officials feel the “outside-the-box” thinking provided by the experts will help guide Erwin in the right direction.

“We’ve seen great reduction in industrial jobs, and we’ve had great loss with the railroad,” Erwin Utilities General Manager Lee Brown, who also chairs the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County, said during an April 4 presentation on the Cool & Connected program. “The past is not going to be the future, but broadband, in my opinion, is our future and we’ve got to understand how we’re going to embrace that and how we’re going to use that to drive our community where it needs to be.”

Erwin was one of the 10 Appalachian communities to be selected for the program in 2016. The announcement of these community partners was made in August. Through the program, Erwin was to receive planning assistance to “construct a comprehensive marketing plan for the downtown broadband connection to attract young professionals, visitors and investors,” according to the EPA.

“We were one of the smaller cities that was awarded but, certainly, from our estimation, we are well-prepared to implement the recommendations of the team, the technical assistance from the team that was provided through the grant,” said Tyler Engle, executive director of the Joint Economic Development Board of Unicoi County.

Broadband access in Erwin’s downtown district is offered through Erwin Utilities’ Erwin Fiber service. Erwin Utilities, Engle said, did all of the “legwork” to apply for the Cool & Connected program.

A workshop, which was led by the experts that will be offering assistance through Cool & Connected, was held at The Bramble on April 4. This session was held to provide local officials and stakeholders ideas on how they can make broadband access work for the community and to begin developing a course of action.

Staff members from Smart Growth America, a national organization that researches, advocates for and leads coalitions to promote smart growth practices in communities across the country, was brought in through the Cool & Connected program. According to Smart Growth America’s website, smart growth is an approach to development that encourages a mix of building types and uses, diverse housing and transportation options, development within existing neighborhoods and community engagement.

“Of all the places we have visited doing this particular work, Erwin may have the greatest promise and the greatest potential of any community that we have visited thus far,” John Robert Smith, senior policy advisor for Smart Growth America  and former Meridian, Miss., mayor, said to those in attendance for the April 4 workshop.

The development of actionable community plans will help the town meet this potential, Smith said. A plan is needed because, as Alex Hutchinson, economic development specialist with Smart Growth America, pointed out the landscape is changing.

Hutchinson said the national economy has shifted to one that is more knowledge-based, adding investors have gone from “chasing smokestacks” to chasing top talent for their companies. This, he said, is due to the retirement of “baby boomers” coinciding with the rise of the millennial generation, which now makes up the largest segment of the workforce.

Erwin’s population of baby boomers falls in line with the state average, but the number of millennials is lower than surrounding cities and the state average, Hutchinson said. 

Because millennials have different preferences than the generations before them as far as types of transportation and occupations, employers have changed the way they have responded to the workforce, according to Hutchinson.

And broadband may by the key to boosting the local millennial population, Hutchinson said. He said 47 percent of millennials desire to live in a traditional urban setting, only 12 percent prefer a suburban setting, and 40 percent would be happy to reside in small-town rural areas so long as broadband access is available, something Hutchinson said Erwin is able to accommodate. 

Deborah Watts with Broadband Catalysts, a consultancy organization, told those gathered at The Bramble that broadband is being utilized as a revitalization tool, adding studies have shown areas with poor access will realize population reductions.

“People will leave to find broadband and move to a place to live and work with good broadband,” Watts said.

Smith said Smart Growth America encourages tech companies, big businesses and corporations to locate within downtown districts. He said research has show 500 large employers, research firms and tech firms across the country have moved out of office parks and into downtown districts within the past five years.

The reason for these relocations, Smith said, is so that these companies can chase “bright, young workers.”

Smith said a 30- to 40-year vision and commitment is needed from local officials so plans can be handed off to future generations. As Erwin moves to rediscover itself after the loss of CSX, he said the community must be able to ask and answer three questions: “Who were you in the past?,” “Who are you now?,” and “Who do you aspire to be?”

Those in attendance for the April 4 workshop were broken up into groups and asked to come up with ways broadband could be used in accord with long-term land use and other community plans, to support economic development efforts, to market Erwin as a “connected” community, to enhance local quality of life, and how the community could educate its citizens on using broadband.

Another workshop was held on April 5. This session was held to allow local stakeholders to further discuss topics such as business and redevelopment ideas and ways to enhance downtown Erwin.

Engle said the technical assistance team brought in through Cool & Connected will use information obtained from the two workshops and a trio of upcoming follow-up sessions to develop an actionable plan. This plan, which could be completed by the end of the current fiscal year, will then be presented to local officials and stakeholders.

“That’s the whole reason that the technical assistant team was here was to help our local stakeholders understand ways in which broadband, specifically Erwin Fiber, can be used to enhance downtown Erwin and, more broadly, Unicoi County,” Engle said.

Engle said a long process still lies ahead before locals receive and are able to implement the team’s recommendations. However, he said projects discussed during the recent brainstorming sessions are accomplishable.

“The ideas floated during that workshop weren’t unrealistic things,” Engle said. “They were rooted in reality and every idea was time bound and was also budget bound, so we were able to put actual numbers to seven or eight ideas that came out of that workshop, which is really exciting. So when we present the findings of the Cool & Connected downtown initiative, we’ll be able to say, ‘This idea is going to cost X number of dollars and will take X months,’ which is really an exciting thing, I think.”

The plan provided through the Cool & Connected program associates directly with the local economic development board’s ongoing strategic plan and the planned comprehensive land use plan.

“Being able to have these recommendations from a team of nationally-recognized experts, I think, ties in and correlates with our local objectives of stimulating local economic development and enhancing the prosperity of everybody in Unicoi County,” Engle said.