Southwest Virginia towns team with federal partners for broadband expansion


LEE COUNTY, Va. - A couple of small, neighboring towns in southwest Virginia are looking for federal help to re-ignite their downtowns and industrial bases. It is an uphill challenge because they are rural and lack access to interstates, and in some pockets, access to broadband internet service. Isolated small towns in our region are finding help in an unlikely place. Ed Fendley manages the Cool and Connected Program through the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Sustainable Communities. "It's meant to talk about trying to create a place that's cool that people want to be including young people, but that's also connected to the digital economy," Fendley said. The program combines resources from the EPA, United States Department of Agriculture, and Appalachian Regional Commission to help towns find new ways to transform their resources. Fendley said, "When visitors come to town, allowing them to plug into the digital world is important to a lot of people. That means maybe they can stay here longer or do more things while they're in town." A new initiative targets 20 small towns nationwide, 10 of which are based in Appalachia. Those in our area include Pennington Gap and Jonesville, as well as Erwin, Tennessee. Pennington Gap town manager Keith Harless told News 5 the town's long-term goals are to provide free Wi-Fi and develop a small business incubator. "It gives us a lot more opportunity being in such a rural community gives us access to the outside world and maybe some local businesses could come in and be able to conduct business here, hopefully in Pennington, and have the same opportunity they would in a metropolitan area," Harless said. Program and government agency representatives are in the area for field research to study the challenges and benefits. "We are all in a ferocious competition for a sense of place. Workers and businesses want to be in a place that is authentic," John Robert Smith said. Smith is a senior policy advisor for Smart Growth America. According to their research, 40 percent of millennials want to live in a small town. Smith said, "The bright young workforce wants two things: they want to be connected to the rest of the work through internet, but they want a place to be in the evening where the streets don't roll up at 5:00." It is now up to the towns to figure out how to get there. Pennington Gap and Jonesville are both working with their broadband provider Sunset Digital. It is a partnership to apply for ARC grants to move their goals forward.