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The Great Escape: How a Historic Prison Community is Building a Prototype for a New Rural America

In recent years we've seen web conferencing, video chat with integrated calendars and other similar technologies transforming the dynamics of today's workforce in America. The trends of digital nomads, co-working facilities, and the Gig Economy have emphasized the idea that work is not a place, it's a thing you do.

Since the deployment of high-speed internet to more than 98% of American households, coupled with the development of web-based conferencing platforms such as Zoom and GoToMeeting, companies around the globe are re-envisioning the way they do business and recruit new talent. Technology utilization enables companies, regardless of their size, geographical location and operating budget, to be more flexible when it comes to accommodating the needs of employees. In many cases this means offering opportunities to work remotely from a co-working space, neighborhood coffee shop or the comforts of home. Businesses are learning take advantage of the best talent, at the best prices, regardless of where they're physically located.

With this newfound strategy, a large portion of younger Americans entering the workforce today will not have to choose between a quality of life, shared values or salary - attributes often found in rural areas like Florence and Canon City in Fremont County, Colorado - and good paying jobs on the other side of the country. No longer will they be obligated to pursue the fast paced, highly stressful lifestyles of urban living with the promise of adequate benefits. The good paying jobs are coming home, virtually anyhow.

But this seismic shift in the way companies are doing business didn't just happen overnight. There's much more to it. What we're seeing in Fremont County and other rural parts of the country can be attributed to years of thoughtful planning, public and private partnerships, precision investments and countless hours of community collaboration - by individuals who are passionate about redefining the way companies view the potential of America's rural workforce.

A Foundation Built to Last

In early 2016, a small and unassuming group of techies, entrepreneurs, project leaders and investors led by Brad Rowland, Jason Veatch, and other volunteers at Fremont Economic Development Corporation, came together with the shared goal of completely redefining what it means to be part of America's 21st-Century workforce. With family history in rural Fremont County, they saw the potential for positive change, especially in Cañon City. Located just 45 minutes from Colorado Springs along the banks of the Arkansas River, Cañon City's close proximity to the I-25 corridor, thriving tourism industry, mild weather and palpable sense of community provided a perfect setting to challenge the status quo.

Brad Rowland and Jason Veatch 

Defined by mono industries, dominated by Department of Corrections, the school district, and local healthcare system, many who consider this rural enclave home can foresee their futures at a very early age: graduate high school and work for DOC or pursue a college degree to secure a more mainstream job with an adequate salary, usually in a location far away. While both are respectable career paths, the best and brightest of Fremont County are left to decide between the communities they love and a highly stressful career. There's a better way.

Understanding the difficult decisions facing many people in rural communities, Rowland and his team set out to provide a solution. When they took a serious look at their community, they saw a long list of underutilized assets. Affordable living, wonderful Colorado outdoor rec culture, low cost commercial spaces, high speed internet, and the potential to grow a tech-center workforce. After numerous meetings with Fremont Economic Development Corporation (FEDC), city officials, local business leaders and countless whiteboard sessions and brainstorming meetings, the formation of FEDC's TechSTART project was announced in January 2017.

"After relocating from the bay area to rural Colorado I didn't think I could stay in tech," said Rowland. "What I quickly learned is that many remote workers were already here, but everyone worked from home and thought they were the only tech person in the community. If seasoned professionals had figured this out, why weren't we building on this trend to recruit more location neutral workers and enable local tech entrepreneurs?"

With an initial focus of growing and supporting local tech businesses, creating co-working environments and coordinating meetups, the mission of TechSTART has since expanded to include educational and mentorship programs for the students of Fremont County and surrounding areas. TechSTART is an active partner of the scholastic internship programs with Cañon City and Florence high schools. Through these opportunities, students can explore the ins and outs of tech-related professions while accruing hours of hands-on work experience which will ultimately play a significant role in determining their future occupations.

Following the success of the TechSTART launch in Cañon City, Brad and his team continued their work with FEDC in the Upper Arkansas region on numerous economic development initiatives within the area. After proven success with a 23 suite incubator and co-working facility in Cañon City, Emergent Campus in neighboring Florence was announced as a new rural business style campus, with space for incubation, training, coworking and events. Headquartered in the historic Florence High School and erected more than 100 years ago, Emergent Campus is positioned to become the base of operations for Colorado's innovative rural tech companies.

Empowerment Through Technology and Collaboration

Maintaining a competitive edge in a 21st Century economy is a top priority for the State of Colorado. To accomplish this, the Colorado Workforce Development Council - a public-private partnership of businesses and government at the local, regional, and state levels - created the Sector Partnership Program to foster economic and workforce development. With more than 750 businesses actively participating, the state has invested in public-private partnerships targeting 14 key regions.

With this top-down strategy, the State of Colorado has taken the necessary steps to attract, develop and retain vibrant new industries that will fuel and give an edge to the state's economic competitiveness for years to come. To take advantage of Colorado's Sector Partnership Program, the TechSTART team worked with the economic development groups in surrounding counties to investigate formation of a rural Technology Sector Partnership.

In early 2018, many in Colorado's vibrant tech world were surprised when TechSTART helped earn Region 13 - which includes the Arkansas River Valley - the distinction of being Colorado's second tech sector partnership, second to Denver Metro. This monumental victory was a result of significant collaboration and months of strategic planning by the leadership teams of the organizations involved. The sector partnership recognition by the State of Colorado not only legitimizes the efforts of the entire region, but adds substantial weight to the emerging nationwide trend to revitalize our rural economy.

The development of other sector partnerships like the Upper Arkansas Health and Wellness Partnership​, Upper Arkansas Tourism​ ​& ​Outdoor Recreation Partnership, Upper Arkansas Early Childhood Education and similar projects could transform the region with the ambitious goal of creating a viable, diversified job market and re-shore jobs to rural America.

Cultivating a Culture

Through the progression of digitalization and automation of companies, as well as broadband services, groups across America are working together to educate rural communities about the overall value of empowered entrepreneurship and the benefits of a dynamic tech-ready workforce. Those who have a vested interest in the success of rural communities are embracing these new opportunities with the understanding they are investing today for tomorrow's industry and generations of talent development.

Since the formation of both TechSTART and Emergent Campus, Brad and his team continue to demonstrate their commitment to accomplishing this. From cultivating goodwill and forging strategic partnerships with community stakeholders, to providing mentorships and creating economic opportunities for young professionals within the region, a holistic approach to empowerment is proving to be a winning strategy, and they're just getting started. "The culture within TechSTART lends itself to really great mutual collaborations. The more time you spend here, the more likely new ideas and opportunities will materialize," said Jason Veatch, site manager and program coordinator for TechSTART's Cañon City location.

In a tech driven world, connectivity is paramount, but like most rural communities, the residents of Fremont County often have to make do with very limited and unreliable broadband. A recent report by the Federal Communications Commission revealed that 80 percent of the 24 million American households that do not have access to high-speed internet are in rural communities. For rural communities to become producers in the digital economy and not just consumers, this has to change.

Understanding that the viability of remote work opportunities, eLearning and telehealth programs hinge on the expansion of high-speed internet into rural communities, entrepreneurs at Emergent Campus launched Emergent Wireless in the spring of 2019. As a technology neutral internet service provider, Emergent Wireless is focused exclusively on delivering reliable, high-speed internet to the city of Florence and surrounding communities.

Through initiatives like these, as well as others which provide access to the same technology, support and resources that are commonly offered by companies headquartered in urban areas, we can level the playing field for professionals who value a lower cost of living and a sense of community that's synonymous with rural living. We can also provide a strategic rural workforce that contributes to the nation's growth by providing an average of 50% lower blended cost of operations than in metro areas, without sending jobs overseas.

Investments in Homegrown Talent

Cultivating successful entrepreneurs from rural communities, largely written off by corporate America, requires a thoughtful approach and constant investment. For far too long rural communities have been in the business of exporting home-grown talent to urban areas of the country where the values of small town America, such as innovation, integrity, and a tenacious work ethic are highly sought after. To slow this exodus of tech savvy talent and recruit tech driven business, TechSTART and Emergent Campus have taken a very proactive, hands-on approach in workforce development, job creation, industry diversification and incubating businesses to retain talent in Fremont County in the 21st-Century market. Through this rural incubation engine, a steady stream of new businesses like Blickel, River Science, and Second-61 are emerging.

The first opportunity to support the home-grown talent of Fremont County came in the spring of 2018. Through a collaborative effort with Canon City High School and Fremont Campus-Pueblo Community College, TechSTART worked to provide high school students enrolled in the Science, Technology, Engineering or Math (STEM) program direct support through mentorships, job shadowing and a three month internship with local businesses.

As a result, Cañon City High School applied for and was awarded a Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH) grant, which will allow students to continue their education debt free through an Associate's Degree. Not only is this significant for students involved, it also earned Cañon City High School the distinct recognition of being the first rural school in the nation to be awarded a Pathways in Technology Early College High School (PTECH) grant.

"Collectively our community has made tremendous progress since the inception of TechSTART and Emergent Campus, but we must continue to make meaningful investments in programs such as P-TECH and STEM development to maintain our competitive edge as one of Colorado's most dynamic emerging tech sectors," said Chris Koehn, Cañon City native and cofounder of Emergent Campus. "By doing so, we'll continue to attract innovative entrepreneurs, create economic opportunities, drive business engagement, and provide a prosperous future for those who consider Fremont County home."

Then in the fall of 2018, Florence High School was selected as the site for Dream Big, an event that attracted more than 200 students from across the county to learn about various forms of technology such as cybersecurity and unmanned air systems. In addition to sponsoring the event, TechSTART also educated attendees about their ongoing efforts to attract higher-paying, tech-related jobs to the region.

If there's one lesson to learn from a small and unassuming cadre of community volunteers who have joined in the vision of redefining Colorado and America's rural workforce, it's never underestimate the infusion of technology, community collaboration and radical kindness.

"The communities of rural America have surprising, untapped value to contribute to our metro economies and advanced industries that have come to define areas like Silicon Valley," said Rowland. "The next century of our economic growth and competitiveness as a nation can come from mobilizing this amazing asset, while raising the quality of life and creating opportunities for so many in our nation's heartland."

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Kevin Mahmalji is the founder and principal of Two Rivers Consulting based in Florence, Colorado. With more than 10 years of experience in public policy advocacy, strategic communications, and nonprofit management, Kevin offers a wide range of professional services including public relations, government affairs, fundraising, community engagement, and more.

In his free time, Kevin likes to give back to his community through volunteerism. He's currently President-elect of Florence Rotary Club, Vice President of the John C. Fremont Library District Board of Trustees, Board Member of Action 22, and an active member of the Florence Chamber of Commerce. Most recently, Kevin was invited to join the Steering Committee for Colorado's Rural Philanthropy Days where he serves as the Co-chair of the Marketing Committee. He is frequently seen at or around his co-working office at Emergent Campus in historic Florence, Colorado.

Published Monday, June 01, 2020 8:58 AM by David Marshall
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