Hartland nonprofit maps potential of rural economies

  • Center on Rural Innovation executive director Matt Dunne runs a meeting at the center in Hartland, Vt., on Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Seated at the table at the Center on Rural Innovation, Alex Tenenbaum, left, director, technology and data analytics, Nora Foote, administrative coordinator, Alex Kelley,future of work program manager, and Chen Chen, data analyst, with Matt Dunne executive director meet at the center in Hartland, Vt., on Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • While on the phone, Alex Kelley, the future of work program manager at the Center on Rural Innovation in Hartland, Vt., stretches at his desk on Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 12/28/2019 10:51:16 PM
Modified: 12/28/2019 10:51:04 PM

HARTLAND — When designing a massive online mapping tool to foster high-tech investment in rural America, software programmers at the Center on Rural Innovation in Hartland aggregated more than 400 different government databases, culling information that details everything from broadband capability to commuting times and proximity of colleges for thousands of communities across the country.

The developers also made sure to include one critical data set: locations of craft beer breweries.

Think of it as the “Heady Topper Index,” which might not be adopted as a metric by the U.S. Department of Labor anytime soon but nonetheless could be a selling point when trying to entice a tech employer to a particular region.

“There’s actually data to show that breweries are an indicator of community identity and create social capital,” factors that can weigh favorably when deciding where to locate a startup, said Matt Dunne, the former Google executive and state senator from Hartland and executive director of CORI. The nonprofit’s mission is to foster economic development in rural communities hollowed out in the de-industrialization of America.

Introduced during a “project demonstration day” at the U.S. Census Bureau earlier this month, CORI describes the Rural Opportunity Map as a “suite of data visualization and mapping tools” that is designed to assist community leaders, national policymakers, investors, nonprofit funding groups and economists in identifying rural areas around the country that have the right mix of attributes to locate a high-tech enterprise or other businesses.

With more than $500,000 in funding from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Mastercard, community development nonprofit Rural LISC and foundations set up by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and retail giant Walmart, CORI has mined hundreds of databases, a majority of which are generated by federal government departments and regulatory agencies, and fed them into a single online platform that allows users to search through filter settings down to individual U.S. census tracts.

A user can pull up myriad statistics about the federally created “opportunity zones” — a tax incentive designed to encourage business investment in low-income census tracts — that provides data on everything from high-speed infrastructure to education attainment, population demographics and income levels. The data also includes details about federal grants each county has received, including the awarding agency, dollar amount and recipient, and has the ability to cross-check it against other counties and the number of patents awarded in the region.

For example, Windsor County has received a total of 272 federal grants in the most recent two fiscal years compared to 803 for Sullivan County, 862 for Grafton County and 90 for Orange County (each individual grant is detailed but there is not yet a function to tabulate the dollar amount in total).

Although Northern New England is not run on a strong county government system, many parts of the country are and “this kind of data gives county officials an easy way to compare federal grants they are receiving to other counties and what (money) could be available,” explained Chris Rowe, a geospatial products manager at CORI who worked on the rural mapping project.

By aggregating and sorting hundreds of databases onto a singular platform, the maps provide a one-stop window into the economic and demographic profile of small town America for comparison. Normally, a user would have to toggle among various localities to obtain the data. But with the map, it’s possible to see, in the same panel — to take a single instance — that Hartford’s population is 9,700 compared to 1,400 for Sharon, while those living in poverty is 7.4% in Hartford versus 15.6% in Sharon (versus 11.4% in all of Vermont and 14.6% nationally).

In addition to the hardcore economic and demographic data, the map also details lifestyle factors such as the number and proximity of libraries, museums, Amtrak stations, national historic places, banks and child care locations. There are additional filters that can screen for hospitals and hospital closings.

Dunne said that CORI was created in response to “the clear divide that emerged between rural communities and urban places” since the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009.

“It was an unprecedented divergence. The places of recovery in our country clearly fell along geographic lines,” he said.

The causes of what economists have termed “the great divide” between rural America and urban America are well documented and grounded in a trifecta of monumental economic shifts such as automation in manufacturing, the rise of globalization that exported U.S. factories to overseas countries and, despite legends of tech startups beginning in a Silicon Valley garage, a decline in entrepreneurship.

“Our theory for change is that we needed to hit that head on by bringing ownership of production back to rural communities — meaning digital economy jobs and entrepreneurship in small-town America,” Dunne said.

One of CORI’s initiatives in bringing digital economy jobs to the Upper Valley is joining with the Springfield (Vt.) Regional Development Corp. to form the Black River Innovation Campus in Springfield. Last week SRDC announced that it had officially assumed ownership of the Park Street School building from the school district, which will serve as BRIC’s headquarters and as a tech incubator.

Founded by Dunne in 2017, CORI describes itself as an “action tank” formed to find solutions for challenges facing rural communities. In addition to developing mapping tools such as ROM, the nonprofit also assists small towns in developing local digital economies and in September launched the CORI Innovation Fund to invest capital in digital enterprises based in Opportunity Zones around the country.

Through its consulting arm Rural Innovation Strategies Inc., which contracts with local municipalities, CORI helped to secure a total of $5.3 million in funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to help develop digital hubs in Red Wing, Minn.; Traverse City, Mich.; and Cape Girardeau, Mo.

And for the record, the craft-brewery index in Vermont is 55, according to the map.

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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