While internet connectivity is being addressed at Humbolt Elementary with a project to connect the school to John Day’s fiber line, another facility is looking to provide an outlet to help the county overcome the trials of broadband while providing access to many resources.
Didgette McCracken, the Open Campus Coordinator at Oregon State University Extension, presented Grant County Coworks — a shared workspace for educational and entrepreneurial pursuits and technology — during the John Day City Council on Aug. 25.
Coworks will be a workplace where members will be provided with coaching and mentorship to provide one-on-one advising to help find funding, create a sustainable business strategy and launch their ventures, while providing local students with access to the technology, tools and mentorship necessary for online education, according to McCracken. Desks, computers, printers, phone charging stations and other items will be provided.
“We have this rural community that’s very isolated, so how can we be doing what we do every day in a different manner,” McCracken said. “I think this is something that can help break that barrier and help fill that need.”
McCracken talked about education, arts and culture and COVID-19 resiliency as the three barriers to overcome in the county that Coworks is planning to tackle to enable learning and accelerate innovation.
She said education was the first barrier she saw and added that there are adults and kids trying to do distance learning with limited connectivity.
“It’s hard to do because you don’t have (internet) access at your home, you might not be able to afford a laptop… it’s a huge issue for our communities,” McCracken said. “For people to better educate themselves or try to advance their degree, it is very difficult here and, of course, now with COVID that’s on another level. Education is just not something easily obtained here and this will help address that need.”
Rod Ray of Canyon Mountain Consulting, which focuses on public-sector and nonprofit consulting, added that, along with education, this will help create an environment for people to start companies around peers and other people trying to do the same.
“In addition to the education part, this will also be like a catalyst to start little remote companies that are appropriate to that area,” Ray said.
This will be a three-phase project with Phase 1 focusing on providing a facility in John Day, Prairie City and Seneca. Phase 2 will expand to new locations while improving the current facilities, and Phase 3 plans to provide a multi-purpose technology and education center with many amenities for students, artists and entrepreneurs of Grant County, according to McCracken’s presentation.
Phase 1 of the project will cost $278,075 with the project costing $124,025 for the first year in John Day, $78,275 in Prairie City and $75,775 in Seneca. Rent, furniture, scholarships and seed funds, equipment, general office supplies, internet and software are some of the items needed to start the first year of the facility.
Rent, scholarships, administration and computers are some of the big startup costs, and McCracken said this project will most likely need multiple funders to cover the project.
“We know that some folks don’t have a computer at home for a reason so they’re probably not going to maybe afford a membership to a site like this, so we can give scholarships to some students or new business owners or folks that are getting up and running,” McCracken said. “That’s a big piece that we put in here because we purposely looked at that and how we can make this successful.”
Ray said they have been looking for funding from Sen. Ron Wyden, the Ford Foundation, the Oregon Community Foundation and local donors.
John Day City Manager Nick Green said the first phase will be evaluated after a year to see if the facility is being used. He said there is a need for a facility like this due to problems with broadband and distance learning.
“With the possibility and maybe the probability that schools are going to close, there’s going to be a lot of people who are disadvantaged because of their broadband access,” Green said.
The city council approved giving $15,000 from their COVID-19 relief funds from the state to Grant County Coworks, which will cover the cost of rent for the facility in John Day. The Grant County Digital Network Coalition also approved up to $30,000 for Coworks, going toward rent and utilities in Seneca, website creation and branding for the John Day and Seneca locations.
While a specific location was not announced during the meeting, McCracken said Main Street in John Day will provide opportunities for space that will be usable and visible.
With $15,000 provided from John Day, McCracken said the next step is to obtain the rest of the funding to complete Phase 1 to open and operate three sites while gathering local and regional stakeholders in the process.
They will also be presenting at the Prairie City City Council meeting in September, as well as Seneca. McCracken said there has been a positive response so far from their representation.
This project is a group effort led by Allison Field from Business Oregon, Ray, McCracken and Stephanie LeQuieu from Oregon RAIN.