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Bringing Hi Tech to Rural Washington State - 2003-08-28

The town of Forks named for the confluence of three rivers in the town is on the remote, western side of Washington state. It's known as one of the rainiest places in the United States, and helps explains why trees there grow to such heights. Logging, along with fishing once dominant industries have declined in recent years because of international competition and other factors. Forks is coping with the challenge of bringing high technology to a natural resource-based economy.

John Calhoun, director of the University of Washington's Olympic Natural Resources Center, recalls the past "boomtown" years in Forks. "We called ourselves the ' logging capital of the world. ' We had a key role not only in the economy of our community, but also the region and the whole state. The state of Washington's whole school system, and the construction of schools to meet the requirements of the baby boomers of World War II- was largely financed through the management of trust assets. The schools' [timber] land -owned by the state, and dedicated for the support of public schools and other public institutions. It was a steady stream of hundreds of millions of dollars a year," he says.

But, in the last decade, Forks faced a reversal of fortune: from an income-producing region for the state to one that's receiving government funds. Mr. Calhoun says even basic community needs may suffer. "It remains to be seen whether a community like ours can afford to maintain a community hospital or whether we'll have to travel over an hour in one direction to find medical services."

Enter Steve Goll, who came to Forks when the boom went bust, and directs the Connecting Schools and Communities program. "I was a project manager in the software industry in Boston," he says. "Coming out here was kind of a big adventure. Forks, Washington is a small town, remote, far from Seattle and high-tech jobs. But I was really surprised when I got here and found that this is a very wired town. The community for the last few years has been focusing on developing technology here. It's been led by the school district, by the hospital, and by private business too. The people out here have developed a lot of business and educational uses of technology."

Mr. Goll says the tourism industry has been quick to embrace computer technology. "A lot of the small hotels and motels, and the bed and breakfast [lodges] have jumped all over technology," he says. "Just having a web site and the ability to register rooms on line has increased business. I know one that now gets 75 percent of its reservations on line, which, five years ago, was not a possibility."

The transformation of Forks into a technology-friendly area has caught the attention of some prominent state residents. Among them is Bill Gates, whose huge software company, Microsoft , is based in Redmond, Washington. Mr. Gates and his wife, Melinda, have a foundation that supports technology development and helped bring experts like Steve Goll to Forks.

"The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation became aware of Forks and the strong education programs we have in this community. They recognized us as having the first 'rural high-tech high school' in America," says Mr. Goll. "The high-tech high school is a program that focuses on using technology in the support of basic education on personal learning and strong standards. The students in our school district are really connected to this community. They go out and do internships, senior projects, and they're helping to teach the community about technology. In turn, the community is teaching them about the world of work and civic education."

But as promising as Mr. Goll's vision of a wired Forks may be, economic analyst John Calhoun says Forks is just one of hundreds of other U.S. towns facing the same challenges. "We're struggling between ' whiz bang ' types of possibilities - and the reality of our natural, competitive advantages and disadvantages with other communities that are facing the same kinds of issues. We're getting a lot of attention from government and other entities that are going through the same thing all over the world," he says.

And Mr. Calhoun says the idea of retraining workers used to the great outdoors into cubicle-bound computer workers- won't be easy. "I think that's wishful thinking. I think it's what everyone wishes would happen that by getting a high-capacity data line hooked up to Forks, Washington, all these loggers will struggle out of the woods, take off their boots, throw their hard hats down and start tapping on the ol' keyboard. [Then, they'll all] be entrepreneurs in the virtual, high-tech world," he says.

John Calhoun says the decline in the timber industry in the region has, instead, led to an exodus of workers. "The folks that have chosen, for one reason or another, to make their livings outdoors working in a blue-collar kind of way and proud of the work they do- are going to seek those opportunities wherever they can," he says. "So we've seen a huge exodus of families to other parts of the country and other parts of the world to maintain that lifestyle. "The other alternative is just restricting their activity. They don't change that much; they get by with what they can. They're underemployed and find something they'd rather not do."

And "something they'd rather not do," according to the University of Washington's Calhoun often means an unpleasant workplace. "One of the biggest growth industries in this region in the last ten years has been the prison industry , with the construction of two major corrections facilities. Many of our people who used to work in the woods have been trained to be corrections' officers.

"Now think of the difference between what had been typical: working for the family-owned logging business with your uncles, cousins and others -who grew up in your community- going out in the woods every day producing logs and shipping them to town. [You're] feeling good about the wealth you're producing and the hard work that's producing something of value. And now, they have to shift the focus of their lives and go into a penal institution every day to guard inmates," he says.

Steve Goll says that, adding to the departure of veteran loggers and fishermen from the Forks area, is the number of young people leaving for college. "We're working on bringing more jobs to this community. But there's the reality that the youth do leave for higher education. We have a community college that does well in preparing students. But some go on to higher education; in fact, most go on to higher education, which means leaving the area," he says. "So it becomes a challenge attracting those students back here."

Yet, Mr. Goll is optimistic about Forks' future, suggesting that technology may provide a way to keep residents from leaving. "We're seeing technology as a way of bridging that distance between the urban areas and remote areas. We see ourselves as having an advantage here," he says. "A lot of people like to come here for vacations. Using technology and ' telework ,' we should be able to keep them here and keep them employed."

Ultimately, Steve Goll says long-time residents and newcomers like himself will realize the attractions of Forks and stay. "Rural America is wired. And we have opportunities here that you just can't find in a large, crowded city. We've got fresh air and access to incredible hiking trails and coastal areas. This is a great area to live. The people who come out here move out here for the lifestyle. Having technology makes people able to have a living out here and earn a wage. [That's] where the next step is," he says.

Technology coordinator Steve Goll and economic analyst John Calhoun, discussing the challenges facing their rural community, Forks, Washington, as it enters the 21st century of technology.