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Small towns are still struggling to amass the high-paying, digital-first jobs needed to succeed in today’s economy. Now a new program from a Vermont nonprofit aims to give them a boost.
Called the Rural Innovation Initiative, the program seeks to assist rural areas interested in building local work spaces, as well as creating digital skills training programs to give residents the skills and the work space needed to take on remote jobs, or to start their own companies.The initiative, announced this week, is spearheaded by the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), a Vermont nonprofit, and its sister organization, Rural Innovation Strategies Inc. It’s also being supported by the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), an agency of the Commerce Department.
Interested communities have to fill out an application by January 2019. CORI is looking for places that fit the U.S. Census definition of a rural area and that have a combination of the following: existing high-speed broadband, real estate located in a New Market Tax credit census tract and/or Opportunity Zones that make it possible for developers to get tax breaks, a nearby university or community college, and a nonprofit willing to lead the initiative.
CORI will then assist communities in creating an economic development strategy to attract more digital and knowledge-economy jobs, as well as pointing them toward sources of funding they can apply for from the EDA and other private groups. CORI founder Matt Dunne told VentureBeat that the Rural Innovation Initiative grew out of concerns voiced in conversations with the EDA, namely, that not enough rural communities were applying for funds that could help them rebuild their economies.
“What we’ve heard over and over again is that there have been challenges connecting [rural areas] to national sources of capital and entrepreneurial advice, as well as fundraising opportunities,” Dunne told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “We believe we can provide that bridge, while understanding that every rural community is different.”
Dunne, a former head of Community Affairs at Google, launched the Center on Rural Innovation in 2016 with a seed grant from LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman. Dunne formerly worked for Google out of Vermont. His thesis is that rural communities can rebound from some of the steep job losses they’ve experienced since the recession and coastal tech companies can cut down on hiring costs if small towns invest more in creating spaces where people can work remotely and receive digital skills training.
To that end, the organization has been building a “Rural Opportunity Map” that reveals which rural areas across the U.S. have assets that might make them attractive to investors or tech companies. Favorable attributes include high-speed broadband or a nearby university. The initiative is being built out with financial support from former Google chair Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy’s family foundation, among other organizations.
CORI has also been building an innovation hub on its own — called Black River Innovation Campus — in Springfield, Vermont. To date, CORI and local organizations have secured about $1 million in funding to create a computer science curriculum for local middle and high school students, a coworking space for local entrepreneurs, and a remote work space where coastal tech companies can train and hire local workers, among other initiatives.
Dunne said that the hub has already received one commitment from Santa Monica-based PurposeLab to train and hire workers at the Black River Innovation Campus, with plans to hire up to 24 workers there through a training and recruiting program that will receive matching funds from the state of Vermont.
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