In the Middle

This is a guest blog written from our friends Amanda Blondeau and Dennis West at Northern Initiatives in Marquette, where the President recently spoke about his initiative to expand high speed wireless internet access to 98% of the population in the country.

In Richard Longworth’s Book, “Caught in the Middle,” he exams the state of many dying
communities in the Midwest and makes a case for Regionalism. He also points out that in a
global economy, the performance of a region will matter over places that compose the region that, if they fail to figure out ways to be attractive in a global marketplace, will simply be left behind.

The President came to our home community because in many respects, Marquette, Michigan is figuring out how not to be left behind and how to be competitive in a global marketplace. And that reach is one that is regional (small region). The President highlighted the need to increase high speed wireless access to virtually every American within five years. Currently, only 65% of households have access to high speed services. The initiative to improve the communications infrastructure will lead to increased jobs and innovation for rural America.

While here, he used the Northern Michigan University Wi-Fi system to connect with classrooms in Big Bay, forty miles north of Marquette, and Negaunee, fifteen miles west of Marquette, simultaneously. Marquette, because of its university presence, was an early adapter to using technology in learning: beginning in the late 1990’s, every student of Northern Michigan University was issued a laptop. The use of high speed Internet and Wi-Fi to connect students and faculty not only on campus, but throughout the region, has been a natural evolution and is helping to not only impact education, but commerce. That was also a part of what the President highlighted.

While the story would seem to be straightforward – a sitting President sets infrastructure as a policy priority – today’s picture is complicated. First, governments are broken. The recession has been, at best, unkind to taxation and revenue. And the tolerance for Government programs is low.

The other side of picture is that in this environment, where deficits are seen at all levels of
government, offsets must be named. The President’s offsets appear to be reduced funding
for the Community Services Block Grant, eliminating predictable and consistent funding for
Community Action Agencies and forcing them to compete for dollars. Lessening home heating assistance from ostensibly the same source. Reducing the Great Lakes Initiative by 25%, and reducing the Community Development Block Grant Program.

So here is where we find ourselves, “caught in the middle.” Between a world that we know
and a world that takes us places where we can imagine the benefits, but which will happen at a cost to people and communities. Clearly Michigan will benefit from a better infrastructure that supports high speed technology. It could help us to bring better instruction to many small schools. It does help us to level the economic playing field of distance, isolation and seasonality when our businesses can use e-commerce. And, in theory and in practice, it could help us to retain, young people who can be telecommuters. At the same time, for those of us in this field of community assistance and community development, there is the expected push back question: but why at our expense?