Building Publicly Owned Broadband Starts with a Low-Tech Approach: Community Buy-in

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On a Tuesday afternoon, standing in front of the Islesboro Sewing Circle on an island off Maine’s MidCoast, Jane Wherren holds up items recently completed by members for the annual fundraiser. The president of one of the nation’s oldest sewing circles, called simply “circle” by locals, Wherren begins every meeting with show and tell. As sewing machines hum and knitting needles click, a dozen women glance up from their work to watch. “Look at these potholders with blueberry pie.” A woman calls out, “Who knitted those cute mother and baby socks?”

Standing in a 120-year-old building with one of the oldest sewing groups in the nation, you’d almost think you had stepped back in time. Then a voice calls out, “Those are gorgeous, can you zoom in?” 

Sewing Circle president, Jane Wherren, displays completed items for annual sale to Zoom attendees. (Photo by Carolyn Campbell)

The voice isn’t coming from the women in the room; it’s coming from a computer held by the circle’s secretary. To zoom in the woman walks closer to Wherren, turning the screen to capture the purses. Later in the meeting, when women sing happy birthday to one of its members, women both online and in person sing along. 

“We’ve been having hybrid meetings since the pandemic,” Wherren said. “We still do. We want to include everyone from our community, whether they’re homebound, in another state, or just unable to attend. Soon we’ll be teaching online sewing classes.”

Ten years ago, long before today’s unprecedented amounts of federal funding in rural Internet infrastructure, Roger Heinen watched Islesboro’s population drop precipitously. “We were facing an existential crisis,” he said. “There’s nothing like young people moving away to threaten the survival of an island community.”

In 2014, Heinen formed a small volunteer coalition to come up with a solution for the island of under 600 year-round residents. 

“Our coalition spent two years talking to lobstermen, selectmen, the hunting club, the school, and power brokers like the sewing circle,” he said. 

In 2016, voters approved a $3.8 million bond to fund the construction of a fiber-to-the-premises infrastructure capable of speeds of 1 gigabit per second. By 2018, Islesboro Municipal Broadband construction was complete and service was installed for all home and business subscribers.

“Getting the network off the ground was the hardest work I ever did,” Heinen said. “We (the town) knew that at the end of the day when the last ferry left, there was no government to save us. We were on our own.”

It’s been nearly five years since Islesboro’s Municipal Broadband connected those first subscribers. Today, as unprecedented federal and state funding is funneled into high-speed broadband access, increasing numbers of coalitions are attempting to build publicly owned networks. In the last two years, numerous attempts in rural Maine have failed. Lack of financial resources is often cited as a factor. Some say campaigns by large telecommunications companies to undermine broadband utilities are another reason.

Heinen says another issue is the most important barrier to getting municipal broadband off the ground. 

“When I talk to towns, I tell them money is not the primary issue,” he said. “What’s most critical is the ability to create strong social capital. There is money out there. There are technical and financial consultants out there. Social capital building, though, that must come from the inside.”

Peggy Schaffer, Maine’s first director for broadband funding, now a strategic consultant and board member on the American Association for Public Broadband, echoed Heinen’s advice. 

“Though there is no clear path to success, strong community engagement is at the heart of most successful publicly owned utilities,” Schaffer said.

In June, one of Maine’s newest town-owned fiber optic networks, Leeds Broadband, will start marketing their service after nearly four years of navigating the murky challenges of garnering support and overcoming incumbent provider opposition. Joe McLean, the organizer of the network, building community understanding and support was important at every stage of the process.

PowerPoint presentation at Eastport City Council meeting. (Photo by Carolyn Campbell)

“It’s been a long haul of hard work,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of coalition building as we’ve worked alongside our selectmen. Each stage has another level of community buy-in, from basic education to the benefits of high-speed internet, to why we can offer it cheaper and better.”

Both Heinen and McLean said the political disagreement between local elected officials and publicly owned broadband committees can be another impediment to implementation. “I’ve watched broadband committees who are on a completely different page with their selectmen and other people in town, arguing about the two different ideas rather than just getting to one good idea and trying to push it,” McLean said.

Having worked with dozens of coalitions promoting publicly owned broadband, Schaffer said one of the biggest mistakes coalitions make is presenting fiber-optic broadband as very technical.

“In reality, it’s a very human infrastructure,” she said. “When asking for money for publicly owned networks, committees need to realize that just because they’ve picked the right technology for their community, that doesn’t mean the community is going to buy into it.”

There’s no substitute for spending time to build local support, she said. 

“There’s so much work to do, committees often forget the importance of public outreach. If committees don’t (get buy-in), when the cable companies and the Spectrums come with their flyers, mailers, newspaper ads, and online attacks, run by people who make their living running these reaching people on a seemingly personal level, it’s too late to start to build support.”

Relieved to have weathered some of these incumbent campaigns, McLean’s team is excited to begin marketing. “We’ll be putting up displays in the town office, at the farmers’ market, and other events around town,” he said. “We want everyone to understand that with this nonprofit model, the more people sign up the cheaper it can be. We are going to focus on being a local provider for our local community. We want people to know that in comparison to the incumbent provider, we can provide far better service for far less.”

Schaffer said the benefits of building strong social capital as part of municipal broadband projects are worth the effort. “We see it across the country,” she said. “Community-owned networks … put revenues back into the community. They increase speed and service while reducing prices. For communities who can bring these networks to fruition, the profits always exceed the costs. The challenge is getting the community on board.”

To do that, Heinen has some practical advice. 

“Make sure to include your sewing circle.”

The post Building Publicly Owned Broadband Starts with a Low-Tech Approach: Community Buy-in appeared first on The Daily Yonder.

After decades dealing with stigma, Friendship Court residents decide to rename their community

Five people stand at the landscaped entrance to a parking lot, with mulch under their feet. One young man looks on while someone paints tree branches on a freshly-painted brick column and three others hang up a banner that reads "Kindlewood: The heart of the city" on a metal fence. There are apartment buildings and cars in the background.

What’s in a name?

For residents of Friendship Court, a stigma. 

“I’m tired of them calling this ‘the hood,’” said Friendship Court resident Jace Wright. He has lived in Friendship Court, a Section-8 housing community in downtown Charlottesville, all his life — 17 years.

But come summer, Wright will call Friendship Court by another name: Kindlewood.

“We’re trying to make the neighborhood better for the future, a place that gives people hope,” said Wright. He knows a name alone can’t make that happen, but the community is also in the midst of being redeveloped for the first time since it was built on Garrett Street in 1978. Back then, it was called Garrett Square.

Over the next couple of years, all 150 families currently living at Friendship Court will move into an entirely new unit of their choice. With the new development, there will also be enough space for 300 additional families to join them.

The redevelopment is being paid for largely with taxpayer money. Some came from the city of Charlottesville, and the rest came from state and federal grants, and some private money. The overall cost is fluctuating because of changing construction costs, said PHA spokesperson Wes Myhre. Phase one, which is nearing completion, will cost about $45 million. That includes two rows of stacked townhomes and one apartment building —106 homes total — as well as front-end expenses like setting up a leasing office and soil remediation. Move-in for these homes will start this summer.

Phases two and three will see the construction of more townhomes and apartment buildings, as well as a community center and other amenities. PHA estimates those phases will also cost roughly $45 million each, but that number could change. The project should be done and residents all moved in by 2027.

What’s unique about this project is that all of the decisions — including the new name — were made by the residents themselves. Sunshine Mathon, executive director of Piedmont Housing Alliance, the local housing nonprofit that manages and co-owns the community with the National Housing Trust, said he hasn’t heard of anything like it anywhere else.

Wright has hope that calling the new homes by a new name will begin to dissolve the stigma around living in the community he calls home. That at the very least his peers, or grown-ups, won’t wince when they hear his Garrett Street address.

Some Charlottesville community members associate Friendship Court with violence, Wright said. Charlottesville has experienced a rise in gun violence this year and many of the incidents are occurring in low-income and public housing neighborhoods, including Friendship Court.

That’s at the front of 17-year-old Wright’s mind. As he talked about it in the Friendship Court community center in March, he leaned forward in his chair, holding his head in his hands. It’s no secret that those incidents, and not the laughter of kids riding scooters and playing tag outside, or the families having dinner together, is what people think about when they think about the area, he said. As he spoke, a young girl took a piano lesson a few feet away, a huge grin spreading across her face as she played.

The stigma surrounding the name Friendship Court also came up in a Charlottesville School Board meeting last December. As City Schools works to rename many of its schools, it asked students what they wanted their new school names to be. Clark Elementary School students voted to rename their school “Friendship,” but school board member Jennifer McKeever cautioned against it.

“I want a name that can represent a big, positive image. I don’t think Friendship alone does that for an academic environment,” said McKeever. “I would think there are additional connotations in our community. I don’t want that to be the image that Clark has to fight against.”

Read more about the evolution of Friendship Court

Like so many areas in Charlottesville, Friendship Court is fraught with history. Garrett Street is named for Alexander Garrett, who enslaved people on his Oak Hill plantation in that area. Over time, a majority Black, majority working-class neighborhood with a few white families grew there. But in the early 1970s, the city declared it blighted and bulldozed most of it, just as it had done to Vinegar Hill a few years before.

In 1978, the Garrett Square community was built with what the federal government called project-based Section-8 assistance (hence “the projects”) from the U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Residents were low-income, but their economic status wasn’t the only thing separating them from the rest of the city: all of the homes’ front doors were built facing inward, at one another rather than outward into the larger community. A seven-foot black metal fence erected around it in 1996 only furthered that physical isolation.

“That fence makes the community think we’re a bunch of criminals down here,” Mary Carey, a past president of the Friendship Court Tenant Association, said in the “Reimagining Friendship Court” series published by Charlottesville Tomorrow in 2019, during the redevelopment planning phase. “These are good people, hard-working people.”

Myrtle Houchens raised her two children in Garrett Square while working as a teacher. She loved it. “It was community. It was a community where individual families looked out for one another. They supported one another. It was loving and caring. I was happy to raise my children there,” Houchens said while sitting in the neighborhood’s community center in March. As she spoke of those fond memories, the new buildings in various phases of construction were visible through the window behind her.

That was her experience in the community, but outside of it, “if you even mentioned it as your place of residency, no one wanted to be associated with you,” said Houchens. “Delivery services and all of that were limited. It put a sense of devalue on people’s humanity.”

When people applied for jobs and put “Garrett Street” for their address, employers didn’t call them back, said Carey.

The local housing nonprofit Piedmont Housing Alliance bought Garrett Square in 2002, did some interior and exterior renovations, and added some services like a GED program for residents. It also changed the name to Friendship Court.

Houchens doesn’t remember exactly how or why, or by whom that name was chosen. An article published in the Daily Progress in November 2003 talked about the community’s “transformation from stigma-ridden Garrett Square.” 

But some, like Houchens, still call it Garrett Square. And though the Friendship Court name was intended to “redefine” the neighborhood in the eyes of residents and the broader Charlottesville community, that didn’t happen. Much of what Houchens, Carey, and other residents experienced decades ago, still occurs, they said.

Residents felt, and still feel, looked down upon for their economic and social status, and, for Black and brown residents, their race.

All of the residents of Friendship Court are low-income — the average annual household income is $17,758 —  and their rents are subsidized by the government. Many of the families are Black, or, in more recent years, refugees from Middle Eastern countries.

Nine adults and teenagers of varying races sit in chairs around a plastic table in a bright community center room lit with overhead fluorescent lights. "Friendship Court Kids" is spelled out in turquoise, hot pink, and silver letters on the back wall.
Most of the redevelopment and renaming committee meetings took place here in the Friendship Court community center. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

So, when Piedmont Housing Alliance, which is under different leadership than when it purchased and renamed the property in 2002, decided to redevelop Friendship Court, it asked for the expertise, the needs, and the wants of the people who know best: The residents.

Residents decided everything for the redevelopment, from where the buildings would go to what carpet will go in the hallways, where the new urban farm would be, and what sort of playground equipment will go in the new park, which will be built in the last phase of the project, where the current residences are now.

Their decisions will change more than just how the community looks — they will change the community itself. Currently, 150 families reside in as many units in Friendship Court. The redevelopment will triple that: Kindlewood will have 450 total apartments and townhomes.

Another major change is that Kindlewood will be a mixed-income development. One-third of the apartments will be reserved for households whose income is 30% of the area median income (or AMI) and below (up to $31,450 for a family of four); one-third for household incomes between 30-60% AMI ($31,451 to $66,720 for a family of four); one-third for 60-80% AMI ($66,721 to $83,850 for a family of four), according to HUD.

In the Charlottesville Metropolitan Statistical Area, the AMI for a family of four is $111,200. 

However, income will not dictate which building, or on what floor or section of a building, a family will live in. Each of the apartment buildings and rows of townhomes will have a mix of homes reserved for all of the income tiers.

“That was essential, from the residents’ perspective,” said Houchens, the former teacher and former resident who loved raising her two children in the community. Houchens served on the redevelopment advisory committee and is now a paid community liaison with Piedmont Housing Alliance. Recreating a lower income neighborhood, or building, all over again would only perpetuate inequities, she said

“I wouldn’t want that barrier, like, ‘more money’ over here, and ‘less money’ there,” said Tamana Khaydari, a high school student whose family has lived in Friendship Court for about five years.

A photo of a construction site. In the foreground, a six-foot-tall metal fence. Behind it, a parking lot with cars and a row of brick duplex-style homes built in the late 1970s. Behind those is a larger, three-story apartment building that is still under construction, with a huge crane hovering above it.
The redevelopment of Friendship Court has taken more than half a decade, from planning to construction. People will be able to move into the first set of completed homes — some townhome-style, others apartment-style, sometime this summer. Others will move in over the next year or so, as future phases of construction finish. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Some residents are skeptical, though. They worry about hearing things like, “well, I pay more than you do to live here” during neighborly conversations. They worry that the stigmas they face outside of their community could start coming from the apartment next door.

Still, having a true mix of incomes in each building, and therefore (hopefully) avoiding separation due to economic status, was more important to residents than getting the project done quickly, Mathon said. If the residents had prioritized speed, PHA could have built the first 150 units and had all current families in a new unit this summer, then focused on construction for the rest of the community.

Instead, current residents are moving into their new homes in phases.

And even though the “Friendship Court” sign has been painted over and a “Kindlewood” banner went up on Tuesday, getting folks to actually use the new name will also likely happen in phases.

Residents have known about the name change for a while — they helped choose it.

A renaming/rebranding committee made up of residents met with consultants before going out into the community asking for new name ideas.

They received dozens of ideas, which the committee narrowed down to two.

Each household then got a ballot to vote for either Kindlewood or Central City. An adult was to fill out the ballot on behalf of the family, seal it, then bring it to the community center. Houchens gathered and tallied the ballots, but a re-do was needed in some cases, she said, laughing: a few kids took the initiative to fill out their family’s ballot, unbeknownst to the adults.

In the end, 85% of households participated in the vote.

Kindlewood won with 61%.

Nine people of varying ages and races stand, smiling, in a line behind a banner. The banner reads "Kindlewood" in large text, with "The heart of the city" in smaller letters beneath it.
Residents of the Friendship Court renaming committee stand with the banner that bears the community’s new name: Kindlewood. Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

The name is a combination of a few of the suggestions and selected because of the way that it evokes kin, family, friendship, a spark, a fireplace in the hearth and therefore home.

“It sounds very calming,” Khaydari, another of the high school students who served on the committee, said while talking with other committee members about the new name in March.

“Peaceful,” added Sallie King.

“My only hope is that it can live up to the name,” said Brandon Martin, a high school student and lifelong resident. “Maybe the name change is something that can change your view of this. Give it a second thought. Give it a chance.”

“Yeah,” Wright said, looking across the room at his neighbor and Charlottesville High School classmate. “Give it a chance.”

The post After decades dealing with stigma, Friendship Court residents decide to rename their community appeared first on Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Still telling stories, Elwood Dryden turns 104

Elwood Dryden was born in 1919. The well-known local businessman and former owner of the Sugar Plum Farm Restaurant turns 104 on June 1.

“I remember when the county was only 3,000 people,” Elwood said during an interview at his Ridgemark home in Hollister in mid-May. He looks back at his childhood in San Benito County with fondness, when neighbors helped each other and he “pretty much knew everyone.” 

His grandfather, John Dryden, came from England and then from the Midwest to San Jose in 1885. John Dryden stayed there for three years, moving to San Benito County to become foreman of the Brewster Ranch. Within three years, he had bought his own place on Riverside Road and began raising chickens and managing his orchards.

On Elwood’s kitchen table is a small collection of mementos. A book with a bio about his grandfather, photos of him with his parents, another with his 4-H lamb. One photo is of three young men: Kenny Sugioka, Roy Stickler and Elwood. He said that they met at San Benito High School and became friends.  Back then many of the rural schools would host dances. So they put together a small band to provide the music for local events, playing popular tunes of the time. 

Both Kenny’s and Elwood’s families had orchards and so they had a lot in common. The Dryden family grew mostly apricots and prunes. 

Elwood soon started college in Hollister. In those days, the college was right downtown in the same area as the San Benito High School. As he became an adult, the slow-paced life of orchard work and music was disrupted by World War II. 

Elwood said this was when his friend Kenny moved away. Japanese American families like the Sugiokas, were being sent to internment camps in other states during the war. It became hard to keep track of him, moving from place to place, but somehow they managed. 

His friend Roy Stickler moved to Hollywood and pursued a career in the film industry. 

For a while Elwood took jobs in other parts of the state. He has fond memories of working among the redwoods of Northern California and in Yosemite, where he developed a great love for fishing and the outdoor life. 

Then he moved to San Jose for a job with Permanente Cement Company and met his wife, Catherine, at a company dance. Eventually, he and Cathy returned to San Benito County to work at the packing house on Riverside Road and sell fruit to stores.

In the 1960s, he started a small fruit stand along Highway 156 between Fairview Road and Pacheco Pass, near Barnheisel Road. “We opened the little fruit stand and we had drinks and that’s about it,” he said. The stand centered around an “Apricot Freeze” made with apricot syrup, ice and milk. Customers could get “all you can drink.” 

“Then they wanted food and we added hamburgers,” Elwood said about the customers traveling between “the valley and the coast.”

His son David Dryden said, “They just kept adding to it. I think there were at least three additions and it eventually became a restaurant.”

They called it the Sugar Plum Farm Restaurant and it was known especially for its apricot and boysenberry tarts. “Everyone in town had their favorite dish and we still run into people who say, ‘I miss your chicken or Swiss steak,’” said Kim Dryden, David’s wife. “It was open breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Elwood closed the restaurant in 1998, but it has been memorialized with a miniature model at [Bonfante] Gilroy Gardens. Elwood and Cathy had three children; Barbara, Dave and Diane. Cathy passed away in 2003. Today, he has seven grandchildren and  11 great grandchildren. 

Elwood and Kenny Sugioka stayed in touch through letters and phone calls. Kenny settled in North Carolina and became a professor at Duke University’s School of Medicine. Although Kenny has since passed away, they were able to remain friends and even visit one another.

Inevitably, when speaking to a 104-year-old gentleman, one feels compelled to ask, “To what do you credit your long and healthy life?” At first Elwood mentioned that he never smoked and was always very moderate when it came to drinking alcohol. But after a little more thought, he said he loved spending time outdoors, especially fishing. He said he watched very little television. “If it’s junk, I just turn it off,” he said. 

Daughter-in-law Kim Dryden, credits his mental alertness to his lifelong interest in news and current events. He has continued to read the Wall Street Journal and has kept up with local and national events. “He doesn’t live in the past and stays up to date,” Kim said. 


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The post Still telling stories, Elwood Dryden turns 104 appeared first on BenitoLink.

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