Grant County hopes free internet will convince tech workers to stay

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

Ryne Smith sits at a computer on the first call CyberMill, which opened this winter in Seneca. He’s working on a contract to check new Intel products for bugs, a job that requires a faster, more reliable Internet connection than he has at home.

“If I didn’t have this Internet, this CyberMill, I wouldn’t have been able to do this job,” the 31-year-old said. “I would have to move.”

Ryne Smith said she couldn't do her job in Grant County without the reliable high-speed Internet access she can get at Seneca's new CyberMill cafe.

Ryne Smith said she couldn’t do her job in Grant County without the reliable high-speed Internet access she can get at Seneca’s new CyberMill cafe.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Smith is an enforcement associate for US T and earns $41,000 a year. So he’s exactly the kind of hard-working young man Grant County wants to keep happy.

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

But now the pandemic is abating, and civic leaders in rural Oregon are looking for ways to convince those workers to stay.

Grant County Economic Development Director Tory Stinnett said that after decades of mill closures, their population has shrunk and aged. More than half of the residents are 55 years of age or older. And from 2000 to 2021 the population decreased by nine percent, from 7,200 to 6,500 people.

“We’ve had quite a few people move here to work remotely,” he said, citing recent home purchase data. “Having something like this helps anchor people in the community.”

To attract and keep young workers, local cities are helping a nonprofit build three demonstration CyberMills in Seneca, John Day and Prairie City. If they are successful, the chain plans to expand to Dayville, Monument and Long Creek.

Seneca's new CyberMill opened this winter.  The Grant County Office of Economic Development helped open it up so people can get fast, reliable, and free internet access.

Seneca’s new CyberMill opened this winter. The Grant County Office of Economic Development helped open it up so people can get fast, reliable, and free internet access.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

The first CyberMills are a one-year demo project. The US Economic Development Administration donated $268,000 and John Day and Prairie City contributed $50,000 and $10,000. Other contributors included the Oregon Community Foundationprivate donors and quasi-governmental groups such as Digital Grant County.

Funders are watching the CyberMills. Customers can use cyber cafes for more than just work; they can play, for example. But that kind of recreational use is unlikely to help attract the subsidies needed to keep CyberMills open.

Therefore, users must register with the county and disclose their age, gender, education, and what they use the service for, such as running a business or attending college.

In order to know who is using free Internet access and for what, Grant County has a security system.  The hope is that the county can show the state and federal government that keeping free Internet cafes open in the long run is worthwhile.

In order to know who is using free Internet access and for what, Grant County has a security system. The hope is that the county can show the state and federal government that keeping free Internet cafes open in the long run is worthwhile.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Didgette McCracken with him Oregon State University Extension Service he helped establish the non-profit organization CyberMill and believes the Seneca coffee has been a success so far. Since opening in November 2021, it has attracted 80 individual users in a city of just 260 people. By the end of the pilot project, she hopes city, state and federal agencies will see that benefit and want to continue.

“There are ways this is being used that we don’t even imagine,” McCracken said.

For example, people who need to download software updates for their iPads and laptops visit the cafe for fast, reliable Internet. Upgrading home computers with a slow and buggy internet system can take hours, if it works at all.

Didgette McCracken of Oregon State University Extension says that in four months they secured 80 users as the new CyberMill Cafe.  That's a sizable percentage of the city, which has a population of around 260.

Didgette McCracken of Oregon State University Extension says that in four months they secured 80 users as the new CyberMill Cafe. That’s a sizable percentage of the city, which has a population of around 260.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

“One day, someone drove up here in their new truck and they needed an electronics upgrade,” McCracken said with a laugh.

With technology now, it is possible to get Internet access almost anywhere. Many small towns are connected to fiber optic cable, and people in especially remote areas can get the Internet via satellite. But that can cost $150 per month at grant county, where the median income is $27,000. And while satellite service is good for shopping or catching up on the news, it’s often not fast enough to fully participate in a Zoom meeting, for example.

Breaks in between can leave an aloof boss wondering if an employee is really 100% available.

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

John Day Councilman Gregg Haberly said he has some concerns about the CyberMill project.  “The problem that scares me is that when you push people to be able to work from home from the Internet, it really hurts retail in a small town."

John Day Councilman Gregg Haberly said he has some concerns about the CyberMill project. “The problem that scares me is that when you’re pushing people to be able to work from home from the internet, it really hurts brick-and-mortar stores in a small town.”

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Others go online using their cell phones. And that’s fine until you realize that a large part of the county has no cell service. Also, it is difficult to write a school assignment or print a document on a cell phone.

Still, not everyone likes the idea of ​​a government-backed internet cafe.

City of John Day Councilor Gregg Haberley has a UHaul dealership and a Polaris dealership in town. Before a recent city council meeting, he said the idea worries him:

“The problem that scares me is that when you’re pushing people to be able to work from home from the Internet, that really hurts brick-and-mortar stores in a small town,” Haberly said.

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

The future home of the CyberMill in Prairie City.

The future home of the CyberMill in Prairie City.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

Eastern Oregon regional economistChis Rich said providing fast, reliable internet is essential to keeping jobs, but he’s not sure internet cafes are the right way to do it.

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

The cafes cost about $20,000 a year to run once they’re built. That pays for everything from heating to lighting to taxes. Your buildings will also be spruced up, adding a bit of sparkle to each city center.

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

Grant’s percentage is likely to increase as more fiber optic cable is installed. But hooking it up will be a huge expense for anyone with a long driveway, which is not uncommon in a place like Grant County. Burying just one mile of cable can cost $100,000 or more.

Installation of fiber optic cables in Grant County 2022.

Installation of fiber optic cables in Grant County 2022.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

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