New Economy recasts the rural South

For the harried tourists that come to this historic Southern town, its graceful oaks and historic Victorian homes hark back to a simpler time.

Indeed, the rows of brick stores lining Main Street, covered in winding wisteria vines, look much as they did 100 years ago, when wealthy tourists were fleeing the soot-and-grime cities of the North.

Yet behind these turn-of-the-century faades lies a nascent silicon kingdom. Thomasville exemplifies how the rural South - long considered a backward, isolated victim of the "digital divide" - is cashing in on the New Economy.

From a Web site that sells shiitake mushrooms in Shirley, Ark., to the headquarters of telecom giant MCI WorldCom in Clinton, Miss., many small Southern towns are wiring themselves for the future.

While many parts of the region are still beset by severe poverty, these new high-tech nodes are beginning to recast old perceptions of the rural South. No longer the province of coon dogs and cotton fields, it is seen by some entrepreneurs as a land of opportunity.

"Small towns and in some cases states can become laboratories of democracy, in this case with technology," says Jim Clinton, director of the Southern Growth Policies Board in North Carolina. "They jump on early and solve problems."

Just last week, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said the high-tech revolution is improving the quality of life in rural America.

Thomasville stands out as a primary example of how this is happening. Once known only for its history - Jacqueline Kennedy retreated here after her husband's assassination - it is now making a name for itself in business.

It recently bought the utilities that serve the city, giving residents cheaper and more-reliable access to the Internet, while allowing businesses to teleconference around the region.

Flower Industries, a food-processing company, moved all its data-processing business to the Thomasville plant because of high-tech capabilities and incentives. And Caterpillar, a company that builds construction equipment, opened a plant here two years ago.

"Thomasville has many features that you don't expect in a town this size, technological infrastructure and the mind-set to see the future being two of them," says Ross Ware, Caterpillar's facility manager.

Just as the Old South switched from agriculture to industry following the Civil War, the New South is riding the high-tech wave. While the region may never be as e-savvy as San Francisco, it is making inroads on its back roads - one town at a time.

*Along the Blue Ridge, a couple in Burnsville, N.C., has joined a quirky-but-booming worldwide market, selling Buddhist meditation cushions online.

*A Ridgeland, Miss., resident recently created WalletOnline.com, a Web page that lets users enter passwords for various Web sites in one place so they will have to remember just one.

*Deep in Arkansas' Ozark Mountains, the Shirley Community Development Corp. sells its specialty - log-grown shiitake mushrooms - online.

Technology more associated with Silicon Valley or Seattle than the hinterlands of Dixie is quickly transforming the region into a prosperous world that Bill Gates could recognize.

One reason: Rural markets have been underserved for quite some time because traditional utilities, especially cable companies, have been focused on clustering around major metro areas. Small markets are ripe.

"Rural Georgia has been bypassed by technology for a long time," says Thomasville Mayor Roy Campbell. "If we want economic development to occur here, we have to make sure the technology those businesses need is available. We want to make sure that the community benefits both economically and technologically."

Like Thomasville, Conway, Ark., also provides city-owned electricity, water, and cable television to residents. But it is Acxiom, a leading database-marketing service with annual sales exceeding $700 million, that helped transform Conway from a town known for its toad-racing festival to a sprawling land of SUVs and soccer moms.

Acxiom started in 1969 with 25 employees and now has 5,600 in the US and seven other countries. It is proof to Arkansas and the South that a high-tech company doesn't have to be on a coast to make an impact.

"You can be a dominant force in changing the economy of the town," says Jerry Adams, Acxiom's marketing leader. "In a big city, you are in a race for talent, but in small towns in the South, you can make the investment in the people and see longer payback."

Yet getting rural residents onto the Web - an important step toward tapping new opportunities - remains a work in progress in many areas. One of the more innovative solutions has come in the mountain town of Blacksburg, Va.

In the early 1990s, it decided to give every citizen free Internet access. Now, more than 70 percent of Blacksburg's 36,000 citizens regularly use the Internet, and nearly 75 percent of local businesses advertise online.

Those are numbers that officials in North Carolina would like to duplicate. There's a push there to wire the entire state for high-speed Internet service within three years. One motive is to ease overcrowding in cities.

Last week, President Clinton went to tiny Whiteville, N.C., to promote the plan. And Erskine Bowles, his former chief of staff, now chairman of the North Carolina Rural Prosperity Task Force, writes: "The challenges our urban centers face are significant. If we are smart, boosting rural growth can be a critical part of that solution."

In time, say analysts, the Internet can play a key role in that mission.

"The Internet is the exception now in the South, not the rule," says Rob Atkinson of the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington. "But we will see more Internet companies build off of an existing economic area, taking a base economy and integrating it into the Internet."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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