Koochiching Technology Initiative
A Blandin Broadband Community Application
1. Cover Letter
The Koochiching Technology Initiative (KTI) coalesced in 2018 out of a longstanding and growing recognition of the importance of internet access, integration and skills throughout our community. Our community includes not just Koochiching County and the neighboring Kabetogama region of St. Louis County, but our diaspora as well. Our community uses communications technology to stay in touch with friends, family and property, wherever they may roam. KTI is sponsored by Voyage Forward, with the Koochiching Economic Development Authority (KEDA) as a fiscal agent.
Voyage Forward was launched in 2013 as a county-wide, stakeholder-driven revitalization effort to identify issues, set goals and take action to be “the platform for growing a vibrant and thriving region through community and economic development.” That vision-forming process sparked a renewed and sustained interest in technological advancement in the community and its leaders. We recognize the pervasive importance of technology to our economic development and quality of life. KTI will leverage internet and technological resources in service of the full range of community “Destiny Driver” goals identified through the Voyage Forward project.
The Blandin Broadband Community Program is an excellent fit for our mission of integrating technology and broadband access in service of community-wide goals. Our local leaders already recognize the importance of the Intelligent Community Indicators as part of a holistic process to revitalize our community and increase its economic and social resilience. Blandin’s broadband history and network of communities which have made similar efforts offer us valuable leverage and inspiration, learning from the shared experiences of others.
We have had many positive projects related to technology come to fruition and more in the works but we still have a long way to go. It is our hope that becoming a Blandin Broadband Community will be the catalyst we need to help our community reach its full technological potential. It’s much easier to adapt a useful model than to invent one from scratch! The Blandin Foundation has already affected our community in many positive ways and we thank you for all of your past and future support.
Ted Saxton Jim Yount
Koochiching Technology Initiative Koochiching Technology Initiative
2: Sponsoring Organization Information
Michael Wellcome, Coordinator
900 Fifth Street
International Falls, MN 56649
Paul Nevanen, Director
405 3rd Street
International Falls, MN 56649
Federal ID Number: 41-1977783
2b: Voyage Forward History
In the spring of 2013, the region’s largest employer, Boise, announced it was laying off 265 employees. That decision led to the formation of a City/County Economic Response Team (ERT) with three citizen involvement teams. The teams would focus on developing a strategy on affected dislocated workers, affected businesses and new business development, and the preparation of a shared vision and long-term strategy for economic diversification.
One result of the Community Engagement process was the creation of Voyage Forward. Over 75 volunteers are actively involved in the Voyage Forward effort. Detailed information on the background, process, strategic action plan, and all activities of each Destiny Driver is available at VoyageForward.org.
2c: Mission, Vision And Goals
Mission: The mission of Voyage Forward is to be the platform for growing a vibrant and thriving region through community and economic development.
Vision: We are one community focused on the future, which values our citizens, environment and unique culture. We are open to all ideas and value the input from our citizens. We understand to improve; we must look to the future and invest in community and economic development.
Goals (Destiny Drivers):
- Koochiching Technology Initiative, supporting and aligned with community and economic development needs and priorities. Champions: Jim Yount and Ted Saxton
- Create a quality of life environment which provides for a healthy and engaged community for residents in all phases of life. Champion: Douglas Skrief
- Position the Voyage Forward region as a quality tourist destination. Champion: Pete Schultz.
- Grow and diversify businesses and jobs in Koochiching County. Champion: Paul Nevanen.
- Maximize cross-border opportunities in support of Voyage Forward goals. Champions: Jim Yount and Travis Glowasky.
- Quality of Place: Create a uniformly attractive county and means to explore it. Champion: Ward Merrill.
- Develop a skilled, trained and educated workforce that meets the needs of the area. Champion: Tammy Riley.
2d: Voyage Forward’s Key Project Staff.
Ted Saxton and Jim Yount both have extensive informal experience helping individuals, organizations and businesses with their technology needs. Both Saxton and Yount are 2015 alum of the Blandin Community Leadership Program, where their collaborations took root. In January 2017 they launched Small Town Tech, Inc. to raise the game for technology access, use, knowledge and support throughout the community. As co-chairs of the Steering Committee, their relevant backgrounds are covered in section 3f.
2e: Voyage Forward’s Accomplishments And Current Activities
- Economic Development Adjustment Strategy completed by Newmark Grub Knight Frank with a focus on changes to grow or attract employers to the community.
- County-wide public survey completed in 2015 with 925 respondents.
- Vision, Mission and Strategic Action Framework developed with extensive community input and adopted in 2016.
- Voyage Forward Coalition formed to “to lead, facilitate, communicate, and sustain Voyage Forward”.
- Koochiching Technology Initiative (KTI) formed to pursue technology and broadband opportunities in support of broad economic goals and Voyage Forward’s Destiny Drivers.
2f: Voyage Forward’s Strategic Partners
Voyage Forward was formed from an economic crisis response by Koochiching County and its cities and they remain its closest strategic partners. This partnership includes KEDA (the Koochiching Economic Development Authority) which is the fiscal agent of KTI for the BBC program. Voyage Forward has no parent organization or affiliated companies but is the parent of KTI. KTI is also closely partnered with the organizations represented by its steering committee.
3: Ability to Lead a Successful Community Broadband Project
3a: Geographical Area Of Our Community
Our BBC community is all of Koochiching County plus the Kabetogama unincorporated settlement on the southern shore of Lake Kabetogama in far northeastern St Louis County. Koochiching County has a population of 12,841 and Kabetogama adds another 135 residents.
3b: Opportunities And Challenges In Our Community
Our two primary technology challenges concern broadband internet access and technical knowledge and skills. Any challenge that can be resolved represents an opportunity for improvement.
The spatial distribution of broadband internet service is patchy in our community due to the economics of extending infrastructure to a small and dispersed population. Improvements in satellite internet services expected later this year and over the coming decade will be a great help, though affordability will remain an issue. Meanwhile, we would like to work with Blandin to increase in the number, quality, usability and equitable distribution of public wifi access points throughout the community. Existing public wifi locations often have people gathered after hours in their cars, even in winter, applying for jobs, services, paying bills, shopping and keeping in touch with friends and family.
Technology skills are below average in our community, with two major results. First, it is challenging to find employees with the full set of technical skills required for today’s jobs across all economic sectors. This causes local business to struggle and makes it much harder to attract or grow new businesses. Second, many struggle with the tech skills now required for daily life, including password management, data backup, online security and more, yet traditional community tech classes suffer from low turnout. We would like to work with Blandin to develop more effective strategies to improve both basic and advanced tech skills.
3c: Organizations That Have Provided Letters Of Support
- Backus Community Center: a community center with a full stage, a performing arts series, 15 tenants and community service which align with Backus’ mission.
- Birchdale Area Broadband Initiative is a Blandin-inspired group actively seeking ways to improve internet access to area residents.
- Birchdale Rural Fire Association servs northwestern Koochiching County.
- Borderland Young Professionals is a nonprofit that consists of local professionals with ages 18 to 40.
- City of International Falls has a population of 6,421 and is the county seat and largest town in Koochiching County.
- Housing and Redevelopment Authority of International Falls provides low income housing to 80 tenants at Woodland Park Apartments and gives preference to seniors and adults with disabilities.
- Independent School District #361 educates 1200 primary and secondary students.
- International Falls Public Library serves all of Koochiching county. Public broadband access to the internet and library resources is a core part of their mission.
- International Falls Chamber of Commerce is an organization that promotes local businesses and economic development.
- Koochiching Aging Options promotes the independence, dignity and health of all of Koochiching County’s senior residents.
- Koochiching County Board of Commissioners are elected officials representing the 12,841 people on Koochiching County.
- Koochiching Economic Development Authority is a joint powers development authority of the City of International Falls and Koochiching County, created to centralize and coordinate the economic development efforts throughout Koochiching County.
- KCC-TV was formed in 2012 to serve citizens of Koochiching County with local news and events programming on Midcontinent Cable Channel 7 and YouTube.
- NE Minnesota Office of Job Training is an employment resource located at the RRCC campus.
- Packaging Corporation of America owns the 107+ year-old International Falls paper mill, the largest employer in the county.
- Rainy Lake Property Owners Association promotes, represents and protects property and riparian rights on the shore of Rainy Lake and the upper Rainy River.
- Rainy River Community College is a two year community college that educates 270 students annually.
- River Valley Development Association owns and operates the Birchdale community building and serves northwest Koochiching County.
- Small Town Tech, Inc. is a technology systems contractor with retail sales and tech service located downtown International Falls, founded by Blandin graduates.
- United Congregational Church, Baudette.
3d: Economic Development Priorities And Current Efforts
Our economic development priorities are captured well in section 2c above and 3e below. Additional efforts include:
- Small Business Development Center with the UMD Center for Economic Development.
- Business park and Free Trade Zone to take advantage of the busiest US rail port.
- Koochiching Community Development Association small business and community enhancement grants.
- Gateway Community projects to reap economic benefits of being a gateway to Voyageurs National Park.
- Private revitalization of the City of Ranier and development of a large municipal dock.
3e: Previous And Current Work Around Intelligent Community Indicators
Broadband infrastructure and services development
- Fiber broadband recently available in Northome, Big Falls and Littlefork.
- Worked with Frontier to provide a fiber connection to cold weather testing facility to support automaker Jaguar Land Rover.
- Active communication with ISPs, business/organization customers and the MN DEED Broadband Office to advance broadband expansion.
- Small Town Tech full network installation and service beginning in 2017.
Creation, attraction and support of knowledge workers
- Working with local Community College to partner with potential data center to create applicable programs/training to provide workforce pipeline.
- Tech internship program at Small Town Tech through the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative.
- Infrastructure improvements (internet, cellular, sewer, roads) on high-value lakefront property.
- $10.5 million airport improvements sustain critical connectivity.
- Work Where You Play recruiting plan for medical service providers.
- Borderland Young Professionals, conceived at the 2015 Blandin Community Leadership training, has a mission “to connect and empower young professionals to foster community enrichment and professional development.”
Innovation to enhance competitiveness
- Working to establish a data center in International Falls with Granite Digital Realty and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
- Satellite data processing with United Health Group that allowed for some workers to work remotely from their homes.
- Small Town Tech founded in 2017 to meet local tech needs at all levels, facilitate distant specialized tech support and help build a tech-friendly community.
- Rainy River Community College added telepresence for distance learning.
- Participation in US & Canadian creation of a remote border-crossing check-in app and a pilot program of iPad kiosks at tourism businesses.
- Swanky Sweet Pea: role model for web-based distribution of local manufacturing.
- University of Minnesota Extension web marketing seminar and International Falls Chamber of Commerce Master training workshops for local businesses.
Digital Inclusion (access to computers, skills and connectivity)
- PCs for People through Kootasca (county-wide).
- Subsidized internet access through Kootasca.
- Falls Public Library provides wifi and access to computers.
- Free wifi and computer for HRA residents at Woodland Park Apartments.
- Tech access programs at community schools.
- Community education tech skills classes and robotics teams.
- Free 5-minute tech consultations at Small Town Tech.
Sustainability of improved living standards
- Voyage Forward process gathered stakeholders and data, set development priorities, accomplished goals and instituted a team to sustain ongoing efforts.
- Sewer infrastructure extension to protect Rainy Lake water quality.
- International Falls affordable housing workgroup.
Community marketing to attract investment and talent
3f: Steering Committee Biographies
Harley Droba currently serves as City Councilor for International Falls and MN State VFW District 8 Commander. In the US Army he worked in satellite communications. At MCI WorldCom, Harley worked in the largest data center in Minnesota and was promoted to Lead Tech in Denver, CO. Harley managed one of the largest fiber optic networks in the US. Harley continues to champion increased broadband, cellular coverage, and technology accessibility in all rural Minnesota. As an applicant for the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, Harley focused the conversation on the needs of underserved areas and the hospitality industry. Harley also serves as the City Representative on the board of KEDA.
Alysa Hackenmueller aids underserved residents as an Employment and Training Specialist for the Northeast MN Office of Job Training and as an adjunct instructor at Rainy River Community College. She has been a Koochiching County social worker and an eligibility worker. Alysa has a BS in social work and a minor in human relations from St. Cloud State University. Alysa’s active community engagement includes Voyage Forward, the International Falls Economic Development Authority Advisory Board, the Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and its Economic Development Committee, the STRIVE mentor and planning committee and Rotary. As a Blandin Community Leadership Program alum, Alysa co-founded and currently chairs the Borderland Young Professionals.
Paul Nevanen has been involved in regional and local economic development since returning to his hometown of International Falls in 1993. He is the Director of the Koochiching Economic Development Authority (KEDA) since 2002. Paul served as Director of the Minnesota Cold Weather Resource Center from 1995-2001: a quasi-state agency created to further develop the low-temperature testing industry in Minnesota. Paul is an alum of the Blandin Leadership program and serves on a number of boards and organizations. He graduated from the University of North Dakota with a B.S. in English education.
Soren Olesen is an industrial technology teacher, head mechanic and bus contractor at Indus School. He is an active volunteer in the townships of northwestern Koochiching County. Soren is the founding chairman of the River Valley Development Associations which operates the community center in Birchdale. He has served for years as a volunteer with the Birchdale Rural Fire Department, the Rainy River Regional Parish UCC board, the Birchdale Area Broadband Initiative, the Rainy River First Responders, the Consolidated Conservation Advisory Committee, the Koochiching Economic Development Authority and as sexton of the Birchdale cemetery. Other community involvements include Voyage Forward, track and field coach, assistant Taekwondo instructor and touring with his family bluegrass band, Sloughgrass.
Ted Saxton is an International Falls native and army vet. His layoff from the Boise paper mill in 2013 led to a personal reinvention and a passionate focus on the community. Ted is a board member at ISD361, Rotary, recreation commision and public library. He is a STRIVE mentor and a co-founder of both Borderland Young Professionals and IFalls Nice. His goal is to make International Falls the best small town in Minnesota for quality of life and happiness.
Hoa Sobczynski has been the business manager of the Backus Community Center since February 2009. Previously she worked as administrator, bookkeeper and development director at St. Thomas School for 11 years. She earned an accounting technician Certificate from Rainy River Community College in 2007, a development certificate in Catholic School Management from Notre Dame in 2000, and an AA degree in electronic technology from Santa Ana Community College, California. Hoa has previous experience as a quality control technician. Hoa also serves as the Backus Community Center Food Service Manager and supervises the center’s Summer Food Service Program. She is a 2010 graduate of the Blandin Community Leadership Program.
Darcy Sullivan is the Director of Koochiching County Community Television and a substitute teacher at ISD 361. She gives private music lessons for young and old on various string instruments. Darcy is a lifelong resident of International Falls and a band member of Couchiching First Nation. Darcy graduated from Falls High School in 1999, received an AA in 2001 from Rainy River Community College and earned a BA in English literature, language and culture from the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2004. She uses her background to highlight this area’s natural beauty and culture on our area’s only community TV channel.
Jim has a passion for troubleshooting, thinking outside the box, discovering unappreciated opportunities and networking various stakeholders together for their mutual benefit. His bachelor’s degree in human factors engineering is all about adapting technology to people. While earning a master’s in ecological anthropology and a doctorate in land resources, Jim used Blandin-like skills to elicit solutions balancing conservation and development interests in a remote, semi-arid forest in Madagascar. He is president of the board of Icebox Radio Theater and is a founding board member of the Rainy Lake Property Owners Association.