Summit: Smallest towns in Valley think big

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The middle of nowhere used to feel a lot different.

Sure, it’s always offered respite with a slower pace, fresh air and country living. It’s also been a little inaccessible. Harder to get everything you want or need without at least an hour’s drive to the next more populated community. A sometimes difficult sell for expanding companies.

But in the new “broadband economy,” it can have the best of both worlds: connectivity in the oasis.

Louis Zacharilla, a keynote speaker at the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce’s upcoming Business Summit, is a virtual bishop of the broadband economy.

As co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, he has studied communities from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Columbus, Ohio, charting their successes as they embrace change and growth in the digital age.

In his presentation, “Community as Canvas,” at the April 12 Business Summit, Zacharilla will discuss how geographic location is no longer a determining factor in a community’s economic potential. In the broadband economy, information and technology are the backbone and innovation and people are key to job creation.

“It’s about seizing your destiny,” Zacharilla said during a telephone conversation from his base in New York. “We understand better how to do it now.”

The Intelligent Community Forum is a think tank that explores how communities can move into the 21st century with success. Those that are doing so all have five things in common. They are: broadband technology, a knowledge workforce, innovation, digital inclusion, and marketing and advocacy.

As with so many great movements, Zacharilla’s is driven by personal experience.

He grew up in a small community in upstate New York that he describes as “everything you’d want.” With a railroad as its economic engine, it had a sense of family and security, private business development and educational opportunities. But when the economic driver changed, so did the town.

“The place had just begun to fall apart,” Zacharilla said.

By then, he was on his way to New York City for a career in advertising. (Remember the U.S. Army’s “Be All You Can Be” campaign? That was Zacharilla’s.) He moved into the satellite business. But he had a longing to answer the questions about what had happened at home and why recovery never took place. He talked about it with colleagues in top-level positions in government and business.

“I found out I wasn’t alone,” he said. “We seemed to see the consequences: people being adrift, rising crime, less trust in communities — stuff that, in many ways, we tried to fix from a top-down perspective but that hasn’t seemed to work very well.”

Initially the research was privately funded by Zacharilla and cohorts. Eventually they put together a think tank and received funding from the Canadian government to examine six communities that worked.

They put together metrics. They moved forward studying communities based on the five criteria. Books have been written and countless presentations made. Now 119 communities across the globe have been designated as “intelligent” under the foundation.

The concept spoke to David Woolson, Walla Walla’s Chamber chief executive, when he first encountered Zacharilla at a conference. Digital development speaks not only to one of the Chamber’s key initiatives for economic development but also comes as fiber optic cable for communities such as Dayton and Pomeroy was just being completed under two federal grants.

“It’s about how do we really look at this serious infrastructure and capitalize,” Woolson said.

Anyone who suspects the Walla Walla Valley might not be prime for this kind of development need only look at Stratford, Ontario, named for the third consecutive year as one of the Intelligent Community Forum’s Top7 Intelligent Communities of the Year.

Stratford has a population around 30,000 people with an agricultural base, auto parts and other manufacturing, and is known for having North America’s largest Shakespearean theater festival.

Led by Mayor Dan Mathieson, the community’s city-owned utility built out a 70-km open access fiber network with a WiFi overlay and signed sales agreements with commercial carriers to deliver triple-play and mobile services, according to the ICF.

That network enabled the Shakespearean festival to bolster its online marketing, thus having a key role in the city’s tourism.

Simultaneously, the city has used the network to cut its own telcommunication costs and power a smart meter program.

Stratford has since become a test bed for technology pilots for companies ranging from Toshiba to Cisco, the ICF said. It’s also a hotbed for expanding academics after the city persuaded the University of Waterloo to open a campus in Stratford, offering graduate and undergraduate studies.

“The one thing people need to understand is this is an inter-generational project,” Zacharilla said. “To rebuild societies we are talking two generations.”

One positive side effect: It can help slow the migration of young people who leave the community for better opportunities elsewhere.

“If they believe that they don’t have to move to L.A. or New York or Singapore to do this and they really want to stay and invest in their culture, they can build a life,” Zacharilla said.

Knowing about it and overcoming fear of change are among the initial steps.

“Getting people to simply embrace the fact that nothing stays the same is really hard in America,” he said.

“There is a lot of frustration. People don’t think there’s any hope. They think they’re the only community going through this. They could’ve taken some action before the real pain, but there’s always hope. There’s a human community here.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321 or vickihillhouse@wwub.com

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