Tech of the Town

Why should the big cities reap all the benefits of the high-tech boom? The state’s smallest communities want their piece, and to get it, they’re crossing the digital divide.

As Austin and Dallas —and, to a lesser extent, Houston and San Antonio—rocket ahead in the high-tech boom, many of the state’s smaller communities are getting left behind. Not only are the economic benefits confined to a certain commuting radius of the major cities, but also young people are picking up and leaving home in search of bright lights and big opportunities. You might call it “crossing the great digital divide.”

Of course, getting left in the dust is nothing new to small Texas towns, where the cycle of boom and bust has seemed as sure as day and night. Plenty of places have felt a kind of Last Picture Show effect: An industry declines, taking with it an entire way of life, and the communities that grew up around it are left to scramble for survival. Oil, cotton, and cattle have all had their heyday come and go, leaving some deadly quiet town squares in their wake.

This time, however, small towns all across the state are determined not to let that happen. They’re busily trying to figure out how to bring Internet business their way, and they’ve got help from the state. Thanks to a law that allows localities with a population of fewer than 500,000 to levy a half-cent sales tax and use it for economic development, many towns have hired consultants and opened economic development offices. Some have also benefited from grants from the state’s $1.5 billion Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund (TIF), which was set up to help connect schools, libraries, and hospitals to the Internet, particularly in rural and disadvantaged areas.

“I think small towns in Texas have shown an incredible resourcefulness,” says TIF executive director Arnold Viramontes, who has traveled to dozens of small towns over the past three years. He points to places like Clifton, a small community west of Waco, where the school superintendent and teachers installed all the computers at the schools themselves. He observes, however, that while the state has gotten a jump on most others in creating electronic networks configured to serve community needs, it’s a little early yet to look for big economic results.

During a recent Texas Community Network Creators’ Conference held in Austin, which brings together civic networkers from around the state, it was clear that there have been no major high-tech miracles out in the hinterlands—no instances of big companies like Dell or Compaq relocating to, say, Poteet or Dime Box to take advantage of the cheaper land prices. Small towns outside the orbit of high-tech centers still face the drawbacks of having a small workforce, being far from transportation centers, and usually, having limited Internet access because of minimal phone service. Some remote Texas towns didn’t even get telephones or electricity until the late fifties. On the other hand, there are plenty of modest success stories, as individuals and small businesses have found a way to use the Internet to boost their income. And for many towns that the Net has yet to rescue economically, it has at least lessened their sense of isolation and brought them some new marketing tools to get the world’s attention.

Take the town of Sanderson, which is one hundred miles east of Marathon, as far from the world of high tech as you can get. It has some beautiful views of the Chisos Mountains and plenty of authentic West Texas atmosphere—Wild Bunch member Ben Kilpatrick, known as the Tall Texan, was killed in a shoot-out near Sanderson in 1912 and is buried there—but the town is a little too far from Big Bend to rake in the tourist dollars, and its economy, once based on ranching and the railroad, has been in steep decline. “Our economy has been devastated,” says Dudley Harrison, a Terrell County judge who has become an Internet advocate in Sanderson. “We lost our railroad terminal, which cost us fifty-one families and a $3 million payroll. And then we lost the wool and mohair incentive, which killed off the sheep and goat business.”

When Hudson and Maggie Kerr shut down the Kerr Mercantile Company, the Sanderson general store that had been in his family for nearly a hundred years, it seemed like the last straw. The store, which sold everything from hardware to groceries, had been an important thread in the town fabric. Hudson had to take a job out of town and commute to work. But the Kerrs, who have been instrumental in creating an economic development plan for Sanderson, found another way to help keep the community together: They started an Internet service provider (ISP), which they named KMC Enterprises.

They’ve found, as have many of their counterparts in remote areas, that running an ISP in the country demands the resourcefulness of a pioneer and an appreciation for small-town and rural culture. Todd Jagger, a professional photographer who runs Overland.Net in Fort Davis, had to learn Unix when he decided to start his ISP. Mary Alice Pate, who started an ISP called Risecom in the town of Jacksonville, says that she has made it part of the community, as she would any other business. “In rural towns people expect chitchat and personal service,” she says. “We get to know our customers, and we get a lot of feedback.”

In 1996 Sanderson became the first town to participate in a new Web service called BluebonNet, which was designed to market tourism in small Texas towns by hosting Web pages promoting their down-home folksiness. It was founded by Texas Rural Communities (TRC), a nonprofit organization started with a federal grant in the thirties. The program began with listings for 21 bed-and-breakfasts in a handful of towns, and it has since grown to fifty lodgings in about one hundred towns that are part of a service called InterActive Vacations that allows communities to interact, via e-mail, with prospective visitors. “We’ve found that the most workable way of using the Web in rural Texas has been in creating tourism,” says John Paul Moore, the director of the Rural

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