PENNINGTON GAP – Entrepreneurs, citizens, and elected officials met with a team of experts in Pennington Gap on Friday, April 7, 2017 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for a lively workshop to develop ideas and action plans for increasing access and utilization of broadband Internet connections in Pennington Gap and Jonesville as a vehicle for economic growth. The workshop was a part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) “Cool & Connected” planning assistance program that helps communities find ways to use broadband Internet access to develop their downtowns and improve their citizens’ quality of life. As part of the program, the EPA hired two non-profit agencies to help guide the process: Smart Growth America of Washington, D.C., and Broadband Catalyst of North Carolina.
John Robert Smith, Senior Policy Advisor and Alex Hutchinson, Economic Development Specialist with Smart Growth America led the workshop. Through a recent series of interviews and surveys, Smart Growth America developed the following vision statement that those in attendance agreed captures the project’s vision for revitalizing both towns.
Building on their coal and Appalachian heritage, Jonesville and Pennington Gap are connected communities, featuring active downtowns with walkable streets, quality housing options, cultural events, and recreational access. Jonesville’s and Pennington Gap’s broadband networks foster entrepreneurship and connect families, students, and visitors to opportunity.
Hutchinson proposed five goal areas to help facilitate the realization of this vision. The goals can be described by a series of “how” statements.
- Community Infrastructure – How the community can integrate broadband into existing long-term land use and community plans to encourage walkable development that will attract residents, visitors, and teleworkers.
- Economic Development – How broadband access can be used to support efforts in retaining, enhancing, and attracting connected businesses and talented workers.
- Connected Identity – How the community can market itself as a connected place to prospective business owners, residents, and tourists.
- Quality of Life – How broadband access can be used to create a lively downtown offer social opportunities, civic engagement, and access to parks and public spaces.
- Education & Outreach – How the community can educate its citizens on using broadband to its fullest capacity.
Participants were then tasked with coming with their own ideas for projects that fit into each of the five goal areas. The group then voted on their two favorite ideas in each of the five goals for a total of ten votes.
Leading community infrastructure ideas include building Wi-Fi networks downtown and in other public spaces in both towns, such as Cumberland Bowl Park in Jonesville, and Leeman Field and Stone Mountain ATV Trail in Pennington Gap. Establishing broadband availability to every home in both towns was the second project.
Establishing a business center for teleworkers and home business entrepreneurs to have a shared workspace with access to broadband and shared office space and equipment, along with coordinating a workforce and telecommunications pipeline for the new hospital were the top economic development ideas.
Many people felt that a Lee County or Jonesville-Pennington Gap downtown mobile app that consolidates events calendars, accommodation, and attraction data is necessary as well as a focus group or leader who works will regional groups to create and market multi-day travel itineraries to attract global tourists to further the goal of connected identity.
Top ideas for improving quality of life were developing a coffeehouse and brew pub restaurant, both with free wi-fi access, and building a wellness center with an indoor pool that caters to all ages and features Internet-enhanced programming like wellness tracking and whole-life approaches to living well.
Success in these and any effort relies on successful education and outreach of citizens. To that end, the group proposed starting classes showing people how to effectively use the Internet for research and for social media, as well as to increase income through entrepreneurial workshops teaching eBay, etsy, and Craigslist.
The workshop then broke up into five groups (one for each main goal) to brainstorm and answer the following seven essential questions for both project actions chosen within each goal.
- Why is this action important?
- What are the measures of success?
- Who is taking the lead?
- Who is the supporting cast?
- What is the cost estimate in both dollars and time?
- What possible funding sources exist?
- What actions need to be taken in the first 100 days?
After lively discussion of each proposed project, Mr. Smith encouraged both towns by saying that, in his estimation, none of the projects were unrealistic and all were reasonable steps that the towns could take moving forward. Smith further thanked community citizens for their kindness, and complimented saying, “You have this wonderful spirit, you believe you can do things. You came in believing you can be something different wanting to expand on who you are without losing your own identity. That is a huge, huge asset. Now you have to take [these projects] into action.” Smith further stated cheerfully, “You came back with actually do-able things. I don’t think all total you came up with things more than about $200-250k, and that included working on a building to put that brew pub in. In today’s world, that’s not an insurmountable number to come up with.”
Smith and the other experts on the team will compile a report containing the actionable items from the workshop, as well as recommendations for moving forward, including funded projects.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband as a continuous connection to the Internet with a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload speed of at least 3Mbps.
About Cool & Connected
EPA’s Cool & Connected is a program that helps communities plan and develop strategies that use broadband Internet connections to improve quality of life and the environment by creating small town atmospheres that are healthy, safe, and whose downtown districts are both economically viable and sustainable.
Cool & Connected is a highly competitive grant program that focuses largely on Appalachian communities throughout the country. Jonesville and Pennington Gap are fortunate to have been chosen for the program, and it is in no small part to the community and elected leadership in both towns that it has become a reality. The other Cool & Connected communities chosen for the period are Haleyville, Alabama, Portsmouth and Zanesville in Ohio, Clarion and Curwensville in Pennsylvania, Erwin, Tennessee, and Bluefield, Weirton, and Williamson in West Virginia. All but one of these other communities (Curwensville) have larger populations than Jonesville and Pennington Gap combined, and most are significantly so with populations ranging between ~10-25k people.
For more information, visit EPA Cool & Connected.