Blue-collar communities are designing their own high-tech networks to attract business
Tacoma, Wash. Stand on a street corner and you can feel it. Not the unstoppable rush that hits you when you emerge from a New York City subway station. Not the charged air hovering about MIT in Cambridge, Mass., or the relentless new-day vibe of a Silicon Valley morning. But there’s something brewing in Tacoma, this city on the south shore of Puget Sound.
Young men and women on their lunch breaks dot the sidewalks. Men in hard hats pop in and out of boarded-up, abandoned warehouses and mills that they’re renovating into San Francisco-style loft offices. Cranes swing around the waterfront, where new buildings are going up. “I can’t say I’ve ever seen that before in 20 years,” says Rob Grenley, an area native who cofounded two companies in downtown Tacoma: Grenley Stewart Resources Inc. and ID Micro Inc.
How is it that after decades of stagnation the city of Tacoma is sputtering back to life? For starters, it’s only about 30 miles south of Seattle, where the high-tech growth spurt has gobbled up almost all the available space and ratcheted up real estate prices to twice what they are in Tacoma. And there’s another ace up the smaller city’s plaid-flannel sleeve: a state-of-the- art, high-speed fiber-optic network that covers the city. Tacoma — rich with small-city business perks like a sane commute, ample parking, and a start-up-friendly permitting process — is now technologically equipped to play ball with the big kids.
Two or three years ago, says commercial real estate broker Eric Cederstrand of Colliers International, corporate clients refused to even drive past Tacoma and look out the car window. Seattle was the city they wanted on their business cards. Now, he says, the Tacoma warehouses he’s renovating are filling up faster than he can sandblast the timbers and hang the reproduction windows. “It’s like Tacoma was put in a time capsule,” he says. “All of a sudden we’ve broken open the time capsule, and we are literally creating a brand-new city.”
The new network in Tacoma represents another chance at economic viability — perhaps even boomtown success.
As is true with many small cities, all this might not have happened if Tacomans had waited for the local cable or phone company to install the high-speed networks that businesses now demand. Frustrated with the inattention of big cable and phone companies, publicly owned utilities in tiny towns and small cities in states all over the country have taken matters into their own hands. They’ve dug up streets, laid fiber-optic cable, and connected residents and businesses to new high-speed lines. Service providers are rushing in to sell Internet access through the new infrastructure. (In some cities, the utilities are even selling the services themselves.) The introduction of choices has made life easier for the businesses already in place and made the cities more attractive to start-ups.
For Tacoma, the new network is much more than a tangle of glass threads. It represents another chance at economic viability — perhaps even boomtown success.
City of Destiny Nearly surrounded by water, with preposterously huge Mount Rainier looming in and out of the clouds to the southeast, Tacoma tends to hang back behind its sexier sister, Seattle, just up Interstate 5. In 1873 the Northern Pacific railroad chose Tacoma over Seattle for its western terminus, and ecstatic Tacomans tagged their town the “City of Destiny.” For many years paper mills choked the air with an acrid stench that came to be known as “Tacoma’s aroma.”
In the 1960s a shopping mall was built in Tacoma. Almost immediately, the downtown retail district started to collapse. Buildings stood abandoned for decades. Crime rose; street gangs moved in. To business owners in those days Tacoma’s nickname must have sounded ironic. “We were the corner business on both corners,” says Steph Farber, whose family’s LeRoy custom-jewelry shop has occupied a storefront in the middle of a downtown block since 1942. For years buildings on both sides were blighted all the way to the end of the block.
By the 1980s, Tacoma was standing still as Seattle flourished. Thousands of people from the Tacoma area clogged I-5 every morning on their way to jobs in Seattle and surrounding King County. When Rob Grenley left for college, Tacoma had “a postapocalyptic look,” he recalls. “You didn’t want to do business there unless you had to.” Grenley worked first on Wall Street and then in Seattle, but returned to Tacoma in 1990 to start a truck-fueling business with Greg Stewart, a childhood friend.
Things were just beginning to turn around then. City officials were working hard to clean the place up. They threw all their resources at improving public safety. They ripped down offending buildings and put grassy parks in their place. And they clung tightly to Tacoma’s marquee business, the Frank Russell Co., a multimillion-dollar international investment-services firm that is headquartered on Tacoma’s waterfront.
But in the early 1990s the city’s communications infrastructure was still stuck in a technological tar pit. “You’d get on the phone and it would be, ‘All circuits are busy,’ ” recalls Steve Klein, superintendent of Tacoma Power, the municipally owned electric utility. The cable service was equally poor. “They had a monopoly, with no incentive to improve the infrastructure,” Klein says.
The Energy Policy Act of 1992 had deregulated the wholesale side of the power business. To stay competitive, Tacoma Power was planning a fancy digital network that would allow it to operate switches, read meters, and manage power loads from remote locations. Klein calls this type of service electricom, from electricity and telecom. “Microprocessors are in everything,” he says. “They need electricity to power them, and they need telecom to interact.”
The SRI International consultants Klein hired to review the plan told him that while he was at it, it made sense to install a bit more fiber than was called for, to wire the city for high-speed Internet access and other applications. The city surely needed it; its franchise office had been negotiating with cable provider TCI Inc. for service upgrades, but TCI representatives were stonewalling. Klein approached TCI and phone company US West about teaming up to share the cost of the new network. “They told us to get lost,” he says.
In 1997 the city council approved Tacoma Power’s plan to spend $100 million on a fiber-optic network. (The money came from the utility’s wholesale revenues; residential and business customers saw no rate increase. Tacoma Power customers have the second-lowest rates per kilowatt hour in the state, according to the company’s government and community-relations manager, Diane Lachel.) Construction of the network began in January 1998, and by July the power company had its first cable customer. Today the Click Network, as it is called, covers 180 square miles.
Tacomans now have choices, which forces better customer service.
The city’s marketing people claim that 100 start-up companies have located in Tacoma since Click went live; some have relocated from Seattle. Those businesses (and city residents) can choose from five different Internet service providers that the network supports. But the real surprise came along in the same month that Tacoma Power broke ground on Click. TCI suddenly announced a decision to invest $30 million to upgrade its own infrastructure. “When they finally woke up to the fact that we were a reality, they tried to stomp us,” Klein says. But, he adds, Tacoma residents and businesses now have choices, which forces better customer service.
Tacomans also have seen hundreds more jobs, more venture capital, and better workforce training in their hometown. Dublin transplant Bill Towey runs a high-tech incubator through his private-investment firm Tacoma Venture Partners LLC. “A lot of these workers were already here,” he says. “They just don’t drive north to Seattle or Redmond anymore.” Towey plans to raise $15 million for his incubator. He and various local companies are involved in a technology boot camp for Tacoma high school teachers.
Giddy with the first signs of success, and eager to tout its prospects, Tacoma has retained the New York City marketing firm Development Counsellors International for $127,000. Tacoma’s economic-development director, Juli Wilkerson, is touring the country, promoting “America’s #1 Wired City” to site-selection companies. City employees now have E-mail addresses that end in wiredcityusa.com. And broker Eric Cederstrand is hot on the idea of changing the names of Broadway and Commerce Street to Broadway.com and E-Commerce Street. “There’s a positive-multiplier effect,” Rob Grenley observes. “More people come, which means businesses will grow and flourish, as opposed to people not wanting to come here on a bet. It’s nice to be heading toward that in your hometown.”
Naturally, AT&T, which bought TCI in March 1999, says the company had planned to modernize its services all along. “Regardless of whether Click Network was in place or not, TCI would have upgraded Tacoma because plans had always been in place to upgrade at that time,” says Steve Kipp, executive director of communications for AT&T Broadband’s Northwest division in Seattle.
Yet the Tacoma experience with TCI was echoed in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and Boulder, Colo. In fact, some 65 municipalities have made end runs around their cable or phone monopolies to offer telecom services, says Martin Gidron, managing editor of UT Digest, a newsletter in Silver Spring, Md., that has chronicled the phenomenon. The trend will continue, Gidron says, since “the demand for telecom services seems to be insatiable.”
Heart of the Commonwealth Some 3,000 miles east of Tacoma, nestled among seven green hills far less dramatic than Mount Rainier, lies the city of Worcester, Mass. Worcester — birthplace of Abbie Hoffman, the diner restaurant, the smiley face, and the Pill — has long been known as the Heart of the Commonwealth. The name fits: the city’s central location and highway and rail infrastructure make it a natural for commerce. Worcester has also been known as New England’s utility closet, because it was a manufacturing center for many years. Most of Worcester’s industrial powerhouses have moved on to cheaper pastures, leaving the city with an assortment of old, abandoned buildings, including a cold-storage warehouse that burned catastrophically last December, killing six firefighters.
In the 1960s, Worcester replaced a massive piece of its core with a suburban-style mall. The shopping center never really caught on, but like the one in Tacoma, it sparked the collapse of the city’s formerly thriving downtown retail base. In the past few years Worcester officials have staked the downtown’s future on another huge, single-use project — a mammoth medical facility — and have restored the 90-year-old Union Station, a beaux arts train depot that had been left to rot for decades. (Tacoma also recently restored its own Union Station, which is being used as a courthouse.)
Worcester residents have always suffered from a bit of an inferiority complex, partly because their town, like Tacoma, is within the shadow of a larger, more vibrant city (in this case, Boston). Even the restoration of Union Station, the pride of the city, came only after years of contentious intracity squabbling and institutional paralysis. Now, nearly a year after the project was completed, its beckoning retail space is almost entirely unoccupied.
Like Tacomans, Worcester, Mass., residents have always suffered from a bit of an inferiority complex, partly due to their proximity to a larger, more vibrant city.
Another part of the problem may be Worcester’s form of government. The chief executive is not the mayor but rather the city manager, who is appointed by the city council instead of being elected by residents. Worcester has had only three city managers since 1953 (when business leaders succeeded in instituting this “professionalized” municipal structure), and none of them has been directly accountable to voters in the way elected officials are. That can make it difficult to create real change. “Worcester has gotten a little bit behind the curve,” says Arthur Couture, an entrepreneur who eyed neighboring towns before choosing Worcester and its easy commute for his software and computer-services company, ICAL Systems.
Now, Couture says, Worcester officials are being pressured to leapfrog ahead. A new fiber-optic network has been installed in the city, and local businesspeople are relying on it to lure new companies to their hometown. A marketing brochure only slightly less effusive in tone than Tacoma’s PR avalanche labels Worcester “America’s #1 Cyber City.”
Worcester’s network differs from Tacoma’s in one fundamental way: a private-sector builder of fiber-optic networks called NEESCom, which was established as the telecom subsidiary of the electric utility formerly known as New England Electric System, installed it at no expense to the city. Gidron of UT Digest says that more than 150 private electric utilities have similarly entered the telecom market.
Tom Wharton, a former bankruptcy-turnaround consultant, is the man who turned NEESCom’s head. In 1998, Wharton bought a bankrupt Internet service provider. Bell Atlantic was going to charge him $6,000 a month for connectivity in Worcester. So he drove 45 minutes to Providence, R.I., where he could colocate his servers with another provider for $250 a month. On the drive back to Worcester, he mused that it was unfortunate he couldn’t locate his business in the city where he lived. Why, he wondered, was Worcester’s technology infrastructure so far behind that of other New England cities?
Wharton wrote a letter to the editor of the city’s daily newspaper. “The next thing I knew,” Wharton says, “I was heading a task force.” He began working with the Worcester Area Chamber of Commerce to bring the city’s technology infrastructure up to speed. Hearing about Wharton’s efforts, NEESCom figured that Worcester would make a great hub for its new regional fiber-optic network and offered to wire the city at its own expense.
About half a dozen competitive telecom companies have since moved in and started selling services on the new network, and Wharton estimates that the influx of providers has drawn at least 10 start-ups to Worcester. That includes a new venture for native entrepreneur Steven Rothschild, who, after having run a family furniture business for 16 years, had started Furniture.com in Worcester. In 1997, Rothschild’s high-speed T1 line was costing him $1,800 a month. He was having trouble finding tech-savvy executives who were willing to work in Worcester, and venture capitalists weren’t breaking down the door to fund a company in the former mill town. All of that, combined with the tough time he was having in getting tax credits, prompted him to move the company to Framingham, halfway between Worcester and Boston.
But earlier this year Rothschild launched an online lightbulb store, called Bulbs.com, in Worcester. High-speed Internet service costs him $168 a month — less than a tenth of what he was paying three years ago. He’s also having an easier time recruiting managers. And there’s even a new $15-million fund for early-stage Worcester businesses. “The technology infrastructure is taking out some of the roadblocks to staying in the city,” Rothschild says.
Wharton’s task force — the Worcester InfoTech Project — has taken on the mantle of marketer for the city’s new high-tech offerings. But the NEESCom network hasn’t been a panacea. “This isn’t Field of Dreams — ‘If you build it, they will come,” says Couture, who hasn’t even been able to connect his business to the network yet. Another prominent local company, Tatnuck Bookseller, is situated just a few hundred feet away from one of the city’s three network rings, which cover the downtown business district, a biomedical park, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. “We are betting our company’s future on giving our customers access to us and having access to them,” says Tatnuck owner Larry Abramoff. “Not being wired is hurting my business right now.” (Until the network reaches him, he’s making do with leased T1 lines and a wireless service.)
Still, Worcester’s model — in which a private company, rather than a public utility, installs the network — may prevail in future business-community resurrections. Tacoma’s model has goosed some big privately owned phone companies. In Washington state, GTE Northwest sued the Douglas County Public Utility District to stop it from expanding its fiber-optic network (the suit was later withdrawn following changes in state law), and the Washington Independent Telephone Association took Pacific County Public Utility District to court to stop it from providing Internet service to customers. So far, Texas, Missouri, and Virginia have passed laws limiting publicly owned electric utilities from offering telecommunications services. AT&T’s Kipp views the public companies’ inroads in this area as a conflict of interest. “We’re beholden to our shareholders,” he says. “Then we have to go in and compete with the government, who’s also the regulator. That could have a chilling effect on competition.”
Steve Klein of Tacoma Power doesn’t really care if Click loses residential customers to the new AT&T offerings; he built the network for the power company’s own purposes, and the Internet-access stuff is just gravy. The mayor’s office doesn’t mind if some Tacoma residents think “Wired City” sounds as if a bunch of caffeine addicts have staged a coup. Some of the new start-ups may not even survive. But 100% success is not the point.
The point is to get things going. The more that entrepreneurs hear about Tacoma, the more seriously they will consider starting or relocating a business there. For the first time the people of Tacoma — and Worcester and other old-economy communities like them — are leveraging their technological assets to promote entrepreneurial businesses. They’re grabbing the reins and kissing destiny good-bye.
Jill Hecht Maxwell is a reporter at Inc. Technology .
Small cities want their zip codes on your letterhead, and they’ll try their darnedest to convince you that their technology is state-of-the-art. Don’t believe the hype. Here are some key questions you should ask regarding tech infrastructure before you relocate:
Can I connect to a fiber-optic network in your city?
How much will it cost to plug in?
How long will it take? Who’s competing to provide me with service?
What are the rates? Is the network connected to major cities nearby?
How many other companies are there? Do they use the network?
Can residents connect to the high-speed network and telecommute?
Are wireless services available?
Up to Date in Kapolei
Remember when every burg across the nation was billing itself as the next Silicon Whatever? Well, now several cities and at least one state want to be known for their wired wonders. Here’s a sampling of the claims:
The Wired City Kapolei, Hawaii
America’s Most Wired City Louisville, Ky.
The Most Wired City in America Stillwater, Okla.
America’s #1 Wired City Tacoma, Wash.
America’s #1 Cyber City Worcester, Mass.
The Internet Capital The state of Virginia
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