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Irene's Silicon Lining: Has wiring Bethel changed it for good?


Published October 22, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Tim Newcomb

The noontime rush at Cockadoodle Pizza Café in Bethel is more like a steady trickle. Two construction workers in reflective neon vests wait in line for pizza slices behind a gaggle of office workers from the GW Plastics plant a quarter mile north on Route 12. Near them, a teenager sits with his head down and eyes glued to his Android, ignoring both his food and lunch companion. In a booth across the room, an older man in jeans and a rumpled shirt scans an iPad; outside, two cyclists quickly check their smartphones before pedaling away.

Such signs of digital connectivity may not seem noteworthy — until you realize how far the town has come. Until three years ago, Bethel village was a digital dead zone lacking even basic cellphone service.

Getting connected instantly became a community-wide concern after August 29, 2011, when flooding from Tropical Storm Irene inundated the small Windsor County town of 2,030 people and wiped out more than $8 million in public infrastructure, including roads, bridges, pump stations, well houses and a local fishery. Also flooded were town businesses, such as Bethel Mills and Dean's Auto, and numerous homes. The storm destroyed nine trailers in Richards Mobile Home Park.

The devastation was so severe that images of Bethel showed up on the national news.

In the storm's wake, federal disaster-relief funds flowed into Bethel and dozens of other storm-affected towns to finance bricks-and-mortar reconstruction. Additional dollars — a $2.2 million grant to the Vermont Council on Rural Development — were earmarked to build something that hadn't existed previously in those communities: a digital infrastructure.

Bethel was among the first of 50 flood-damaged towns to apply for assistance from what became known as the Vermont Digital Economy Project. The 18-month initiative offered towns a chance to boost their connectivity through such services as free public Wi-Fi zones, municipal websites, digital consulting for small businesses and nonprofits, and digital literacy tutors for Vermonters with few or no computer skills.

The overarching goal: to make towns better prepared in the event of future disasters.

The project launched in January 2013, though technically, staff weren't in place and assisting communities until two months later. Since then, VCRD and its partners, the Snelling Center for Government and the Vermont Small Business Development Center, have helped set up 25 municipal websites, 26 Wi-Fi districts, 160 "digital tools" workshops and 250 Front Porch Forums.

According to director Sharon Combes-Farr, the Vermont Digital Economy Project went a long way toward "bridging the digital divide" for the nearly one-third of Vermonters who say they never use the internet.

But as the project draws to a close in December, it's a good time to ask the question: Will Vermont's late arrivals to the digital age maintain their newfound connectivity once the federal funds are gone?

Combes-Farr isn't sure, but stresses that VCRD puts a premium on what she calls "self-determination." If a community decides a project or program is valuable and important — be it a food-shelf website, a Wi-Fi hot zone or some other digital enterprise — the town must find a way to make it sustainable.

Bethel appears well on its way. Next door to Cockadoodle Pizza stands Black Forest Café and Caterers, owned by Nick and Heidi Nikolaidis. Heidi, who is also vice chair of the Bethel Business Association, says her town was among the first to jump on the opportunity to set up a downtown Wi-Fi zone. That now spans the 0.3-mile stretch of Main Street from Bethel Town Hall to Mills Hardware.

Because Bethel's municipal government lacks the staff and resources to manage and maintain a Wi-Fi district on its own, the nonprofit BBA agreed to take on the task. Using the federal grant money, it hired South Royalton-based ECFiber to build the hot spot, which required installing Wi-Fi transmitters and repeaters in the village. These are all linked and share collective bandwidth; dues from the BBA's 70-plus member businesses cover the cost of maintaining them.

As a result, says Nikolaidis, on any given morning, locals and tourists alike can be seen sitting in their cars along Main Street or in the town hall parking lot and accessing the internet via the "Bethel Connection," the landing page for public Wi-Fi users.

Since its launch on June 20, 2013, more than 36,000 users have connected to the internet via the Bethel Connection — as many as 154 in one day, Nikolaidis reports. Those numbers don't include people who access the internet via Wi-Fi hot spots at Cockadoodle Pizza and Mills Hardware, both of which have Wi-Fi repeaters that are linked to the public ones — at no cost to the BBA or Bethel taxpayers.

Townspeople who lived through Irene decided that the Bethel Connection could also serve the function of a municipal website. The landing page features links to local businesses, services and nonprofits and town announcements, as well as VT Alert, the state's official all-hazards emergency notification portal.

After the storm, many Bethel residents were unable to access emergency information about their town, Nikolaidis explains. Her own family didn't have power or telephone service for five days; cut off from town by the washed-out road, they knew little about what was happening in the village. Under such circumstances, Nikolaidis reasons, town officials would be unlikely to be able to update a municipal website. So the VT Alert link stays on the Bethel Connection page in case a similar disaster befalls the town in the future.

A few miles north of Bethel on Route 12, at Kimball Public Library in Randolph, Lynne Gately is adept at spotting visitors who haven't been to the library before — including this reporter. That's understandable, given that Gately, an adult services librarian, has worked there for more than 15 years and knows most patrons by name or face. Many come in to access one of the library's five computer stations, which were upgraded last year to high-speed internet.

Gately characterizes the digital literacy of many library patrons as "pretty bad." Some arrive with no prior experience, while others have limited skills but remain intimidated by the rapid pace of technological advances.

"At Christmastime, all these elderly people got a new Kindle or a new iPad," she recalls. "Did they really want it? If you ask me, probably not. But their kids wanted them to have it and think they'll love it, and they don't. It's a really steep learning curve."

Earlier this year, Kimball Public Library was one of 24 libraries statewide, including the Bethel Public Library, that received an internet intern — a college student paid $15 an hour to help library users improve their online competency.

The goal wasn't just to help seniors download ebooks or access Facebook photos of their grandchildren. As Gately points out, many large employers in the area, such as Shaw's, Dollar General and Gifford Medical Center, now expect applicants to submit their job applications and résumés online.

So, for two semesters, Kimball Library's internet intern, then a senior at the nearby Community College of Vermont, spent at least nine hours a week tutoring patrons on creating résumés, searching for jobs, filling out applications and filing for unemployment online. Though the funding for that program has since run out, project director Combes-Farr says that, owing to its popularity, plans are in the works to secure long-term funding, possibly through the Vermont Library Association.

Not everyone who's reaped the benefits of the Vermont Digital Economy Project did so by boosting their web presence or social media savvy. In Bethel, local farmer and consulting forester Carl Russell has become a poster child of sorts for how the farming and forest-products industries can benefit from online digital tools.

Though no Luddite, Russell runs his logging business, Russell Forestry Services, the old-fashioned way: He logs sustainably using a pair of draft horses. Until a few years ago, he didn't have an email address and did all his record keeping by hand in a notebook.

Russell's draft animals and equipment weren't lost or damaged in the 2011 floods, but about a month's worth of logging — 35,000 board-feet in all — languished on washed-out roads for six weeks before trucks could get there and deliver it to a mill. As a result, much of the wood became stained or otherwise degraded, costing him thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

After Bethel got involved in the Vermont Digital Economy Project, Russell, who also serves on the town's selectboard, agreed to be a liaison to the farming and logging communities.

Initially, he wasn't sure the project had anything to offer a business like his. "It became clear to me early on," he recalls, "that a lot of what they were talking about — website management, social media and stuff like that — didn't really apply to what we're doing."

But once involved, Russell learned about an iPad app that serves as an extremely comprehensive data-collection system for forestry inventory management. "So I got to thinking, what else is out there that a forester, logger or farmer could use in their business?"

With help from the Vermont Digital Economy Project, Russell secured a tiny grant of about $500 to purchase an iPad Mini for his business. The grant covered not just the hardware and software, but also one-on-one consulting services with Pat Ripley of the Vermont Small Business Development Center.

With Ripley's help, Russell found several GPS mapping programs that allowed him to upload and download digital files, evaluate timber lots, and connect to the Agency of Natural Resources' online atlas. The last supplies him with more than 50 layers of GIS data on wetlands, deer yards, streams, property boundaries, soil composition and the like.

"Having these tools provides me with a level of professional presentation that I couldn't have afforded in the past," Russell says. "I don't have the scale of business where I could have invested in this hardware to support these kinds of digital tools."

Since adopting them, Russell has forged connections with other animal-powered businesses, in Vermont and around the world, and shared info about new products and methods.

"I have people I now consider to be good friends who are horse loggers in England," he says. "A hundred years ago, someone might have leaned over a stone wall and watched his neighbor using a new plow. That ain't happening anymore."

Asked if he believes Bethel's digital advancements will outlast the funding stream, Russell admits he's not sure.

"I don't know how sustainable it is. It's a question I get asked all the time because I make my living with hand tools and draft animals," he says. "So my sense of sustainability is, this is a good tool for me right now."

That's good enough for Combes-Farr of the Digital Economy Project. Sustainable "may mean it's not there in five years," she says. "Or it may mean it's something that changes the community forever."