The chamber has taken the first step to qualify for a portion of nearly $2.5 million in federal stimulus funding recently awarded to Vermont for its “e-Vermont Community Broadband Project.” The program, which will be administered by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, is intended to expand the use of existing broadband service in areas that are considered “underserved.” According to the VCRD, the project will “drive the benefits of the digital age to parts of the state that have been left behind, both economically and in digital culture.”
Only 24 Vermont communities will be selected for the program through a competitive application process. The VCRD will work with 12 of the 24 communities in each of the program’s two years. At least 30 communities have already submitted a “pre-application” to the VCRD.
The program will offer communities a wide variety of tools to enhance broadband use. VCRD Executive Director Paul Costello says his organization will work with each community to meet the needs they identify. Potential services include training for residents and local government officials, the establishment of local forums and social networking sites, computers for local libraries, and even free Netbooks for students in grades four and five. “This grant will bring a myriad of activities to towns,” Costello says. “There’s going to be a panoply of dynamic and exciting stuff.”
Costello says the program will leave a “very deep impression” in schools. In addition to the free Netbooks, the program will also include new curriculum and technological modernization.
One of the goals of the program is to enhance the commercial use of broadband by local businesses. Costello says the VCRD will provide direct support for individual businesses. The grant will pay for a full-time business counselor, available to businesses in the communities served under the grant.
Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Laura Sibilia says broadband access and computer know-how are crucial for businesses. “Small businesses need to do so much more than just maintain their own Web sites,” Sibila says. “They need high-speed Internet access for marketing, to monitor travel sites to see what people are saying about them. If you have dial-up, that’s a challenge.
Sibilia says the three towns, and the Deerfield Valley in general, easily fall into the category of communities that are “underserved” by broadband access. Local libraries are experiencing high demand for their computers and high speed access, but many of their computers are becoming obsolete. Listers’ offices and other municipal departments could enhance their services through broadband. “None of the towns have any e-commerce on their Web sites,” Sibilia says. “Whitingham doesn’t have a Web site, although they’re working hard at it. This could give them the tools to make it easier to do and to maintain.”
The VCRD plans to send out a more detailed application for the program to help narrow down the number of applicants to 24. Costello, who worked with Wilmington in the VCRD’s Community Visit program, says he’s “psyched” that the towns are applying for the program.
“I will be very aggressive in going after this grant,” Sibilia says. “I see this as a great opportunity for the three towns, and it’s a perfect job for our new long-term planner.” The TEDC is currently in the process of developing a job description and hiring process for the planner.