Grant County hopes free internet will convince high-tech workers to stay

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series that examines the efforts of communities in Grant County, like other parts of rural Oregon, trying to attract and retain workers.

Ryne Smith sits in front of a computer at the first so-called CyberMill in Grant County, which opened this winter in Seneca. He’s working on a contract to check new Intel products for glitches – work that requires a faster and more reliable internet than at home.

“If I didn’t have this internet, this CyberMill, I wouldn’t be able to do the job,” said the 31-year-old.

Ryne Smith said he wouldn’t be able to do his job in Grant County without the high-speed, reliable internet he can get at the new CyberMill coffee shop in Seneca.

Christian Foden Wensel / OPB

Smith is an executive assistant to US T and makes $41,000 a year. So he’s exactly the kind of young worker that Grant County longs to keep happy.

When the pandemic began in 2020, many people like Smith headed to rural Oregon. They were seeking to escape the virus in places that offered more space and a more affordable lifestyle.

But now the pandemic is about to end, and civic leaders in rural Oregon are looking for ways to persuade these workers to stay.

After decades of factories closing, their populations have shrunk and aging, said Tori Stenett, Grant County’s director of economic development. More than half of the population is 55 years of age or older. And from 2000 to 2021, the population declined by 9%, from 7,200 to 6,500 people.

“We’ve had quite a few people who have moved here to work remotely,” she said, citing data from recent home purchases. “Having something like that helps cement people into society.”

To attract and retain young workers, Local Towns is helping a nonprofit build three CyberMills demonstration shows in Seneca, John Day, and Prairie City. If they are successful, the series plans to expand to Dayville, Monument, and Long Creek.

The new CyberMill opens in Seneca this winter.  Grant County's Bureau of Economic Development helped open it up so people could access the Internet for free, reliable, and fast.

The new CyberMill opens in Seneca this winter. Grant County’s Bureau of Economic Development helped open it up so people could access the Internet for free, reliable, and fast.

Christian Foden Wensel / OPB

First CyberMills is a one-year pilot project. The US Department of Economic Development donated $268,000, and John Day and Prairie City contributed $50,000 and $10,000. Other contributors include the Oregon Community Foundation, private donors, and quasi-governmental groups such as Grant County Digital.

Funders are watching CyberMills. Customers can use internet cafes for more than just work – they can play games, for example. But this kind of recreational use is unlikely to help attract the grants needed to keep CyberMills open.

So users have to sign up for a boycott and disclose their age, gender, education, and what they use for the service – such as running a business or attending college.

To find out who is using free internet access and for what reason, Grant County has a security system in place.  The hope is that the boycott will show the federal and state government that free internet cafes are worth keeping open for the long term.

To find out who is using free internet access and for what reason, Grant County has a security system in place. The hope is that the boycott will show the federal and state government that free internet cafes are worth keeping open for the long term.

Christian Foden Wensel / OPB

Didgit McCracken with the Oregon State University Extension Service helped create the nonprofit CyberMill, and believes Seneca Cafe has been a success so far. Since it opened in November 2021, it has attracted 80 single users in a town of just 260 people. At the end of the pilot, you hope city, state, and federal agencies will see this benefit and want it to continue.

“There are ways to use this that we haven’t imagined,” McCracken said.

For example, people who need to download software updates for their iPads and laptops visit a coffee shop for fast and reliable internet. Updating a home’s computers on a slow and malfunctioning internet system can take hours, if it’s running at all.

With the extension of Oregon State University, Didgit McCracken says that within four months they have secured 80 users as the new CyberMill coffee shop.  This is a large proportion of the city, which has a population of about 260.

With the extension of Oregon State University, Didgit McCracken says that within four months they have secured 80 users as the new CyberMill coffee shop. This is a large proportion of the city, which has a population of about 260.

Christian Foden Wensel / OPB

“One day, someone drove here in their new pickup truck, and they needed to get an electronics update,” McCracken said with a laugh.

With technology now, it is possible to access the internet almost anywhere. Many small towns are connected by fiber optic cables and people in especially remote areas can get satellite internet. But that can be as high as $150 a month in Grant County, where the median income is $27,000. And while the satellite service is useful for shopping or keeping up with the news, it’s often not fast enough to fully participate in a Zoom meeting, for example.

Temporary breaks can leave a boss away wondering if the employee is truly 100% available.

There are other ways to get online in Grant County. But each has its drawbacks. For example, several people told the OPB that they park outside Bear Valley Minimart in Seneca to use the store’s free Wi-Fi. It’s not entirely cozy or comfortable – especially in the winter.

John Day Council member Greg Haberley said he has some concerns about the CyberMill project. “The problem that scares me is that when you pay people to be able to work from home from the internet, it really hurts small-town businesses.”

Christian Foden Wensel / OPB

Others connect to the internet using their cell phones. And that’s fine until you realize that large swaths of the county don’t have cell phone service. Also, it is difficult to write a school paper or print a document on a mobile phone.

However, not everyone likes the idea of ​​a government-backed internet café.

John Day City Councilman Greg Haberley runs UHaul Agency and Polaris Agency in the city. Before his last city council meeting, he said the idea interests him:

“The problem that scares me is that when you pay people to be able to work from home from the internet, it really hurts small-town businesses,” Haberley said.

In other words, if people have good internet access, they will buy things online rather than locally. Haberley also believes that government is too big and too involved in people’s daily lives already.

The futuristic home of CyberMill in Prairie City.

The futuristic home of CyberMill in Prairie City.

Christian Foden Wensel / OPB

Providing fast and reliable internet is essential to sustaining jobs, said Eastern Oregon regional economist Chase Rich, but he isn’t sure internet cafes are the right way to do it.

“Remote workers generally want and need a private, fixed office location,” Rich said.

The cost of operating the cafés is about $20,000 a year once they are built. This pays for everything from heating to lighting and taxes. Their buildings will also be improved, adding a little sparkle to every downtown.

Marcus Bott, who lays fiber-optic internet cables in the area for his family’s OTC Connections company, estimates that 60% of Grant County residents already have fast, reliable internet at home. This compares to about 98% in Portland or Bend.

Grant is likely to rise as more fiber optic cables are laid. But being associated with it would be a huge cost to anyone with a long lane, which is common in a place like Grant County. Burying just one mile of cable can cost $100,000 or more.

Extension of fiber optic cabling in Grant County 2022.

Extension of fiber optic cabling in Grant County 2022.

Christian Foden Wensel / OPB

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