High-tech brings rural towns back to life

Ten Sleep, Wyo., Fitzgerald, Ga., and others are now budding locales.

Across the street from the Po' Boy Opry, Web designer Jannis Paulk, a "refugee" from Atlanta, is helping everyone from rural real estate agents to dog breeders expand their markets via the Internet.

"I'm a unique breed," says Ms. Paulk from her cluttered desk in the back of a downtown clothing consignment shop. It's a scene that offers a none-too-subtle symbol of the dot-com world merging with small-town Americana.

Paulk is among the high-tech pioneers who are helping locales including Fitzgerald become bright spots in rural America.

"It's not just about historical preservation or farming, but also the Mayberry mentality – that ultimately people do enjoy these small towns," says Chad Adams, director of the Center for Local Innovation in Raleigh, N.C. "It's a golden opportunity for small-town America."

Three trends are fueling growth in some rural areas, says Bill Gillis, director of the Center to Bridge the Digital Divide in Spokane, Wash. Mobile dot-commers with "golden Rolodexes" are launching tech-based companies. Eco-fuel growth and rising corn prices are pumping money toward entrepreneurs in traditional breadbasket industries. And government investments in broadband and high-tech "incubators" (subsidized office space geared toward high-tech businesses) are allowing local economies to branch out beyond the cotton and corn fields.

In Winthrop, Wash., a 950-pop. town near the Canadian border, John Nelson launched HomeMovie.com and now employs more than 20 people cutting and storing home movies, all in the majestic shadows of the North Cascades.

With some help from a state-funded tech incubator, Matt Tice, a video-game programmer in New York, left the big city for the Smoky Mountains foothill town of Ellenboro, N.C., to start ARCHON Creative Design, a studio offering everything from game programming to comic book coloring.

Ten Sleep, Wyo., (pop. 350), is the world headquarters for Eleutian Technology, LLC, a company with 120 employees that uses Wyoming teachers to teach South Koreans how to speak English via videoconferencing.

Eleutian is an example of some of the more advanced start-ups, which are dependent on wandering careerists returning to their small-town, rural roots, according to Mr. Gillis.

The co-founders of Eleutian, who met in Seoul, both came from small towns in the West. "I get up in the morning and go pheasant hunting," says Brent Stanger, Eleutian's vice president of operations. "That's the kind of thing you can't do in the city."

The path to rural economic development, however, is paved with empty industrial parks and wasted public incentives.

North Carolina faced heavy criticism last year from fiscal conservatives after it spent nearly $1 billion to bring a Google server farm employing only a few dozen people to a rural Tar Heel town.

Taxpayer-funded economic development schemes proved to be a major boondoggle in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., where the $21.5 million taxpayer-subsidized renovation of an old theater has largely been a bust, says Mr. Adams. Also in North Carolina, Global TransPark, a huge rural industrial park equipped with a runway for global reach, still has no tenants after years of marketing by the state.

"Too many people think that all you have to do is build an industrial park and they will come, and that's not true," says Gerald Thompson, who has been the mayor of Fitzgerald for 40 years.

Indeed, for a more realistic look at how rural America will fight back, Fitzgerald's journey holds some lessons. The town lost 14 of its 15 textile plants in the past decade. More recently, Georgia's $20 million investment to build a high-tech wing to East Central Technical College has helped the area flourish.

Still, the town of 12,000 is mostly known for the wild flocks of Burmese jungle fowl that peck at its brick streets. "This won't be Silicon Valley any time soon, and I wouldn't want it to be," says Paulk. "It'll remain a small, rural community, but I'm excited to see people using technology to find new ways to boost their revenues."

Eyeing a passing gravel train, old-timer Dubois White, a pest-control consultant, agrees that the town, located three hours from Atlanta, doesn't have a "world of restaurants" or other big-city amenities. But despite rural challenges, he says, "we keep an even keel, and even gain some."

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