Campbellsville, Ky., was once a thriving little community. Located in the geographic center of the state, the town's 11,000 residents had rarely had seen unemployment exceed five percent in 50 years.
But when the town's largest employer, Fruit of the Loom, suddenly closed its manufacturing facilities in 1998, Campbellsville found itself face to face with an economic disaster.
Almost overnight, unemployment jumped nearly 30 percent.
"It was devastating," said Kevin Sheilley, executive director of Team Taylor County, an organization formed to encourage economic development in the Campbellsville area. "Fruit of the Loom had employed generations of area residents, and then suddenly it was gone."
Campbellsville government leaders soon realized that stabilizing the community's economic health - and that of surrounding Taylor County - required more than generating new jobs. With the rest of the country firmly entrenched in the Information Age, Campbellsville's survival depended on its ability to transform itself from an old-fashioned manufacturing center to a 21st-century city.
Road to Recovery
Campbellsville's leaders launched their new strategy immediately.
Their first move was to form Team Taylor County. The goal of the organization is to rally local leaders to build a strong, united approach to creating a healthy economy. Soon after the team's formation, the local college, Campbellsville University, joined in recovery efforts by establishing a Technology Training Center.
Although both steps helped, a key piece was still missing: infrastructure. Without broadband Internet access, there was little hope of attracting new businesses to the area. In some cases, the lack of high-speed communications infrastructure was even putting the fate of existing Campbellsville businesses in jeopardy.
"Campbellsville Industries is one of the oldest and largest steeple makers in the country - very traditional, old-line manufacturing," said Sheilley. "But as they work with architects and builders around the country, they need to be able to send blueprints and CAD drawings over the Internet, and they just couldn't do that using dial-up Internet access. It put them at a competitive disadvantage."
But luring a broadband Internet service provider to Campbellsville proved to be difficult. "The phone company was very upfront - they weren't interested, they were not going to make that investment in Campbellsville," said Sheilley. "We went to the cable company, but their infrastructure wasn't ready yet. We realized the only way you could have broadband in Campbellsville was if you paid for a T1 line. That cost $1,000 to $1,200 a month, which knocked out most businesses. We recognized at that point we'd need to find an answer to this problem on our own."
That's where the Kentucky League of Cities (KLC) came in. Joe Mefford, CIO of KLC, is a 35-year veteran of both AT&T and BellSouth. As such, he witnessed firsthand how critical high-speed Internet access could be to rural communities. Fortunately for Campbellsville, Mefford and the KLC already had planned a mission to bring high-speed Internet access to all of Kentucky's rural communities.
"It became apparent to me quickly that many of the rural areas were falling behind simply because they did not have adequate Internet service," said Mefford.
Mefford and the KLC spent the next six months looking for solutions. They eventually concluded that wireless broadband was the best answer to Kentucky's problems. "I looked at six different wireless technologies and finally found one that seemed to be a perfect fit for our rural towns because it had a five-mile range," said Mefford. "In most cases a five-mile radius will incorporate these small cities with just one antenna. It makes it simple to deploy because you find the center of town and find a water tower or something similar, and you're in business."
After researching wireless options, Mefford and the KLC settled on Toronto-based Waverider's concept. Waverider's system uses 900 MHz radio waves broadcast from an antenna to a notebook-sized receiver connected to a computer's Ethernet port. The KLC then began negotiations with local wireless Internet service provider Municipal Wireless to leverage the service for any rural Kentucky city that wanted it.
Launching a Pilot
Naturally, Campbellsville became the testing ground Municipal Wireless' service. KLC negotiated a cost of $89 a month for each business that wanted to sign up, and Municipal Wireless began setting up test sites last spring.
A six-week pilot program exceeded expectations and the service is now being expanded. Sheilley said more businesses request the service every week.
"It allows us to see the dream and the promise of the Internet fulfilled in a place like Campbellsville," he said. "The whole promise of the Internet is it allows you to compete wherever you are if you have the access. Companies here can now compete in the global marketplace. They don't have to be in a major metropolitan area."
Since the rollout, Campbellsville has seen its economic outlook improve steadily, beginning with Amazon.com's decision to establish a distribution center in Taylor County's old Fruit of the Loom plant. The move greatly reduced unemployment figures. "We've seen unemployment go down as far as 5.6 percent," said Taylor County Judge Executive Eddie Rogers.
Although attracting Amazon.com to the area proved broadband's effectiveness as an economic development tool, Sheilley said he and Team Taylor County view the technology as more than just that. "We don't see it so much as an important business recruitment tool, even though it is," he said. "We see it as being able to help our existing businesses be successful and to help them to do business better so they can survive and grow."
Just the Beginning
Mefford is happy with the progress Campbellsville and Taylor County have made, but his work has just begun. He currently is working on a task force within the governor's office to ensure every city in Kentucky has high-speed Internet access within the next 12 to 18 months. "We want to ensure not one city is left behind," he said.
Mefford said local leadership was key to bringing broadband to rural Kentucky. "It's quite difficult because when you go to a city with 1,500 people there just aren't that many businesses there. It takes the Chamber of Commerce and local government leaders to help mine out opportunities and leverage the buying power."
Once cities are set up with broadband, Mefford expects them to take advantage e-government applications currently under development at the state level.
"We've got a whole smorgasbord of applications we're going to offer cities," he said. "The first one will be online procurement - cities will be able to perform online reverse auctions to purchase anything from paperclips to multimillion-dollar construction projects. This is critical for government because every agency is now experiencing shortfalls. They have to do more with less, and this application could allow cities to save between 20 and 30 percent."
Ultimately, officials hope bringing broadband Internet to Kentucky's rural communities will help cities avoid the sort of wrenching economic challenges that faced Campbellsville.
"It was a very tough time," said Sheilley. "Fortunately, it's a very resilient community and we've bounced back, replaced all the jobs we lost and we're actually on the plus side of things now."