ONLINE BUSINESS

Small Town, Big Connections

A look at how community networking gives rural businesses a chance to play in the big leagues.
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Community networking gives rural businesses a chance to play in the big leagues

A long ribbon of road winds across the high desert of northern New Mexico, vanishing into the gold and green backdrop of the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The air is tangy with the sweet smell of burning piÒon wafting up from the chimneys of the pink and brown adobe homes that, like the sagebrush, dot the landscape. Native American families doing their marketing and chores, stopping occasionally to chat, crisscross an ancient dirt plaza surrounded by multistory straw-and-mud buildings. This is the 1,000-year-old Taos Pueblo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America.

A few miles down the road is a modest adobe home. The tan house with the small yard and thick crop of greenery in front is typical Taos. But inside, Kathie Priebe is tapping away on one of her three 486 computers, the reds, blues, greens, and yellows emanating from the monitors flickering across the white walls. Priebe is swapping information at 14,400 bits per second as she downloads files from a company in Switzerland.

These are the two faces of Taos, N. Mex. At one end of town, ancient traditions still center people in a changeless world. But across the literal and meta-phoric plaza, businesses are linking to a shifting, restless global marketplace via high-speed telecommunications. Since January, nearly 100 businesses in Taos have signed on to the World Wide Web.

What is happening in Taos is part of a national movement. Small remote communities are attempting to bridge their isolation by taking their businesses and even their local governments on-line. "Community networking," as the phenomenon is known, brings the Internet to people in far-flung outposts. Rural businesses have seized the opportunity to play in the big leagues, with entrepreneurs of every stripe now hawking their wares in cyberspace. Taos, along with other small communities like Telluride and Steamboat Springs, Colo., has become a model for the ways that rural communities can use the Internet.

So far the results have been uneven. Getting on-line -- and profiting from the experience -- can be a challenge for people who live in large urban areas bursting with telecommunications expertise and resources; doing the same in the outback is all the more difficult. Yet the businesspeople in Taos who are venturing onto the Internet have high hopes. If they can make the experiment work, thousands of other tiny rural communities are likely to follow.

* * *

Kathie Priebe had spent a dozen years living and working in Silicon Valley when she decided it was time for a change. In 1994 Priebe started Intelli-Data, an information service that does everything from electronic news clipping to custom research. She hung out her shingle in San Jose, Calif., but quickly realized that there was little reason to stay in the city. "Frankly, no one showed up at my office," Priebe says. "Customers never came in; they just called on the phone."

So Priebe began thinking about relocating. She had vacationed in Taos and liked both the physical beauty of the place and its countercultural and multicultural communities. (Hispanics make up almost two-thirds of the town's population; Anglos account for a quarter of the residents; most of the rest trace their roots to the indigenous Pueblo population.) "I specifically wanted a rural environment," says the urban refugee. But she couldn't afford to be too rural; Priebe needed local access to the Internet in order to do business.

"The fact that there were basic telecommunications capabilities was very important to me," Priebe says. She opened an account with the local nonprofit Internet service provider (ISP), La Plaza Telecommunity Foundation Inc., tried it from California to make sure it worked, and moved to Taos in September 1995.

Sitting in her living room, wind chimes tingling softly outside her window, the sweat-suited Priebe confirms that her move has brought her both personal contentment and professional success. By the end of 1995, Intelli-Data was grossing around $100,000 a year and was making a profit.

But despite her premove research, Priebe's relocation was not as problem-free as she had hoped it would be. When she arrived in Taos, she discovered that La Plaza's telecommunications capabilities were not up to the demands of her work. The La Plaza network seemed to corrupt the large-volume data transfers she made daily. As a result she had to dial into an ISP in Albuquerque, a long-distance call away. Her monthly phone bill soared to nearly $800 a month, up from the $250 or so she had been paying in California. Rural living was nice, she says, but "the long-distance charges were killing me."

Fortunately for Priebe, La Plaza's success had spawned imitators. TaosWebb, a local commercial ISP, went on-line last spring and later became the design arm of another local ISP, TaosNet, which went on-line in early February of this year. Priebe volunteered to be a tester for TaosNet to be sure that it would work with her system. Now she connects locally and without glitches to the Internet on TaosNet -- and saves herself about $200 a month.

The key to succeeding in a rural environment, reflects Priebe, is "using your big-city skills -- but not a big-city attitude -- to leverage your environment. But there's got to be some kind of baseline infrastructure. You have to have phone services and someone who can fix your computer."

* * *

a plain white room is abuzz with the sounds of keyboards clicking and conversation. Fifteen pairs of eyes are glued to the radiant monitors of 15 Macintosh computers. A palpable nervous energy is broken occasionally by cries for help.

This is La Plaza Telecommunity Learning Center, run by Patrick Finn, a hairdresser, artist, and community organizer. Here even computerless TaoseÒos can indulge freely (and for free) in the 1990s pastime of Net surfing. This is the essence of community networking: giving the uninitiated the knowledge, tools, and resources to share in the information revolution.

The inspiration for building an on-ramp to the information superhighway from rural New Mexico -- the on-ramp that made it possible for Kathie Priebe and others like her to move their lives and businesses to Taos -- came from a small group of residents disturbed by their isolation. Richard Bryant is a balding, mustachioed telecommunications expert with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, who moved to Taos from New York City in the early '90s when he "got tired of stepping over bodies." He teamed up with Paul Cross, a former engineer from Los Angeles, and Patrick Finn. Bryant, Finn, and several others from Taos attended a community networking conference held in Telluride in July 1993. It was there that they conceived not only of bringing technology to Taos but of creating a technological culture that might transform their community.

"We realized we could do much more than have a pipe come into town; we could provide something really good for the community in terms of education, health care, and business and economic development," says Bryant, adding brashly, "We also thought we could make our network better than the other networks we saw."

From a business standpoint there was good reason to do more than just connect Taos to the Internet. For technology-dependent businesses to thrive in remote areas, connecting a computer to the Internet is the easy part; finding employees who have the savvy to use the technology or, as Kathie Priebe says, finding someone to fix your computer can be far more challenging.

La Plaza went on-line in December 1994, offering users 15 hours of free Internet connect time, free Internet training, and even free use of computers at the learning center. La Plaza's home page (http://laplaza.taos.nm.us) is an elegant Web site illuminated by southwestern motifs. It includes numerous forums for exchanging views on subjects ranging from local politics to business, cultural events, and sports. The town government is on-line, and there's a health-care page with information about diabetes, hypertension, and other health problems that are common among the local population.

The basic idea of La Plaza, according to Bryant, was to recreate electronically the sense of community the town had lost. "We wanted to create an electronic plaza, where you could meet people, buy things -- whatever you used to be able to do at the plaza but can't do now."

La Plaza's founders had hoped to get 200 people to sign up for E-mail accounts, Internet training, and access to the World Wide Web. To their amazement, more than 2,500 people signed on in the first year. In an extension of its community services, La Plaza recently went commercial: on February 1 it launched the Trading Post @ La Plaza (http://laplaza.taos.nm.us/tp), a site where local businesses are putting up Web home pages and conducting on-line commerce. Competitor TaosNet (http://www.taosnet .com/menus/sub.home.html), which also launched in early February, is already struggling to keep up with requests to put local businesses on-line. Like its real-world counterpart, Taos's electronic plaza is fast becoming a bustling commercial center for the community.

* * *

Like businesspeople elsewhere, entrepreneurs in Taos have found that the promise of the Internet is uncertain. "The challenge is whether we can sell things on the Internet from our little rural community," says Finn. "We make dynamite stuff here. Can we sell cookies on the Internet? We don't know yet. This is an experiment. Will people see art on the Internet and buy it? We don't know. Will they buy a poster? Maybe."

So far, the most successful Taos Internet business ventures have been travel and tourism.

Taos is perched near two ski areas. Taos Ski Valley (TSV), the largest ski area in New Mexico, put up a home page last fall on TaosWebb. TSV gets 14,000 "hits" -- visits to its Web site (now on TaosNet) -- a month. "Consumer response has actually passed my expectations," says TSV marketing vice-president Chris Stagg. "I see it as an alternative to distributing brochures. If you have a great ad in a magazine, it costs thousands of dollars, and you get 2,000 to 3,000 responses." Stagg calculates that it costs him about 50¢ for each brochure that he mails in response to a traditional inquiry. In contrast, TSV paid $3,500 to put up its Web page and pays $160 a month to maintain it. He notes that the resulting cost per inquiry has dropped to a few cents. "I feel as if I'm getting a bargain, even if I get only half the respondents," he says.

Ski Rio Resort, a combination ski area/realtor about an hour north of Taos, attributes several major real estate deals to its Internet presence. An E-mail inquiry led to the sale of a $40,000 property to an out-of-state buyer. A Dallas builder who saw the Ski Rio home page (now located on the Trading Post @ La Plaza) and exchanged E-mail with the resort has now signed a letter of intent to build a million-dollar housing complex. And a Hawaii investor who first "visited" Ski Rio in cyberspace is poised to close on another property. Says Ski Rio CEO Lawrence Smith, "We've generated ski and real estate leads at probably one-tenth of the cost" of advertising in conventional media like magazines and television.

Describing himself as "bullish on Internet commerce," Smith believes that "the Internet is the future way of doing business, especially for a small-town business like us. A Web site and E-mail allow us to be part of the world."

India Hatch, owner of Taos Valley Resort Association Inc., a central-booking operation for northern New Mexico that does $7 million in reservations a year, put her business on TaosWebb in December. Hatch estimates that 10% of the inquiries she's gotten on the Internet have converted to actual reservations. "If we could get 20% conversion, which is a great conversion rate for any central-reservation system, we'd be in the profit mode," Hatch says. She says that Internet inquiries are less serious than telephone inquiries, so her staff often asks cyber-visitors for a phone number in order to actually speak to them.

Outside the travel industry, Taos businesses that have ventured onto the World Wide Web have not yet seen a major return on their Internet investment. Surrounded by walls festooned with the brilliantly colored works of contemporary southwestern artists, Fenix Gallery owner Judith Kendall is philosophical about her foray into cyberbusiness. "As a commercial thing, it would be very, very tricky to actually sell fine art on the World Wide Web," says Kendall. "But you would like people to see what you have and maybe be interested enough to inquire further -- or if they're in the neighborhood, you'd like them to come visit."

Since the Fenix Gallery home page went up in December 1995, Kendall has been getting about 500 hits a month on her Web site and a half-dozen E-mail inquiries each week. Several out-of-state visitors have even come to the gallery after seeing it on-line. The site cost Kendall $3,000 to create and runs $50 a month to maintain. Five of her artists contributed $200 each to offset the total cost.

Peering through her black-rimmed glasses, Kendall adds, "It would take only one person to come in and buy one several-thousand-dollar painting to make it worthwhile." That hasn't happened yet, she says, but the Internet "is a link to people, a connection that you would be foolish not to take advantage of here."

* * *

The burgeoning computer culture of Taos has spawned an impressive num-ber of jobs and opportunities. Three years ago basic computer repairs were made in the back of the local vacuum-cleaner repair shop, and it was virtually impossible to get computer supplies in Taos. Today three stores sell and repair computers. La Plaza has put the town government on-line, and contractors can now file and receive building permits electronically without having to wait around in the town hall. You can even complain about potholes by E-mailing the town manager.

As for technology-related jobs, La Plaza alone employs about 20 people. At least three Web-page design houses have sprung up in town to service the demand La Plaza has created, and Michelle Hernandez, a local woman, runs El Valle Technologies, a computer-training school. La Plaza is negotiating an international contract to put a chain of Caribbean travel magazines on-line, for which it expects to hire and train up to four people. The activity and interest in computers mean that businesses not only are finding Taos a technologically friendly place in which to locate; they're also finding employees who can "speak" computer.

"This started out as a technology project and it's ended up a community-development project," Patrick Finn says.

Although the Internet may not yet have resulted in sales of many New Mexican widgets, it has already paid dividends to the Taos community. And in an unexpected twist, the new culture may even be helping preserve the town's oldest culture.

Sitting in the shadow of the ancient Taos Pueblo, former tribal official Nelson Cordova, who is on La Plaza's board of directors, says, "Many people don't want to leave this place, but they have no opportunity here." He explains that unemployment on the pueblo is around 60% to 70%. But with the new infrastructure in place and easy access to computer training, many of the pueblo's residents will be able to find work without having to leave the culture they've spent generations building.

* * *

David Goodman (davgood@aol.com) is a freelance writer based in Waterbury Center, Vt.


WIRING YOUR BUSINESS COMMUNITY

So you want to bring local businesses together on-line. Before you head into cyberspace, lay the groundwork for the project by following these five tips:

Organize. Consider creating an organization to provide Internet access and training within your community.

Do outreach. Talk to people and community organizations face-to-face to explain how the Internet can help their business.

Educate. Provide "quick start" Internet classes to develop a critical mass of technoliterate citizens. Some of those students may end up being employees for the local on-line service.

Target. Offer workshops for specific business groups -- say, real estate agents or retailers -- to demonstrate the benefits of going on-line.

Give it away. Free public access to the Internet at a local library or community center lets people get their feet wet gradually.

Last updated: Jun 15, 1996




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