INTERNET becoming new factor in growth

Tuesday, May 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ASHLAND, Ore. (AP) _ From the time of the first explorers, the West has depended on transportation for growth and development, from rivers to railroads to freeways.

This city of 20,000 on the California border is among the first to bet on the Internet for 21st century transportation.

The Ashland Fiber Network provides high-speed low-cost fiber-optic connections for businesses, as well as cable television and high-speed Internet access for local residents.

The first city-owned telecommunications network in Oregon began last year with an investment of $5.8 million, recently earning Ashland a place on Yahoo! Internet Life's list of most-wired towns in America.

``I think it's the next step,'' said Mayor Alan DeBoer. ``Cities are going to need this kind of infrastructure.''

State employment division statistics for Jackson County were showing increasing high-tech employment even before the fiber network went in _ up from 934 jobs, or 1.5 percent of the workforce in 1995, to 11,694 jobs, or 2.4 percent of the workforce in 1999. High-tech wages rose from an average of $28,335 to $39,083.

``They pay a wonderful salary,'' DeBoer said of high-tech companies. ``And it's a clean industry.''

Project A Software President and CEO Jim Teece said the fiber network has helped his business grow to 50 employees through a move into Internet server service, and drawn several new high-tech firms to town.

He is also working with Open Door Networks CEO Jim Oppenheimer to install wireless high-speed access points called Airports at coffee houses, bed and breakfasts, and pubs.

``It's the future, and we get the opportunity to show it off,'' Teece said. ``We like to do things a little differently.''

Ashland has always gone its own way. In the 1850s, when the California Gold Rush spilled into southern Oregon, Ashland's founders built a flour mill. In more recent times, the city developed its own electric utility, enacted one of the nation's first ordinances protecting access to solar energy, and bought the local ski hill to keep it open.

The traditional infrastructure helped Ashland grow _ first the railroad by carrying flour and lumber to market, then Interstate 5 by bringing tourists to Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays. Many of those tourists decided to move to Ashland, especially when they retired.

Ashland's popularity has come at a price. The cost of housing is skyrocketing, making it difficult for lower-income people to live here. In the first two months of the year, the average selling price for a home was $243,481, compared to $162,717 for all of Jackson County.

Even in this information age, transportation _ airports, highways and railroads _ is still important, said Robert Van Dyke, professor of political science at Pacific University.

Over the past decade, most of the growth in Oregon and Washington state has been along the Interstate 5 corridor.

Van Dyke has been studying communities on Oregon's northern coast, which have been working to build new economies after the collapse of fishing and timber. He has found that many businesses won't consider relocating there, because they can't get high-speed Internet connections.

``I'm not sure if you build it they will come, but if you don't build it, they won't come,'' Van Dyke said.

There are other communities, like Baker City in the remote high desert of Eastern Oregon, that have tapped high-speed Internet lines going by, but are still too far from places like Portland and Seattle to go booming, Van Dyke added.

The history of new kinds of infrastructure _ the telegraph, the telephone, electricity and air travel _ shows they can fuel growth for a city that has other advantages, but not make up for them, said Jim Strathman, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Portland State University.

``The Ashlands of the world have become more connected, and become more viable locations for these footloose activities,'' Strathman said. ``At the same time, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago _ cities with the same technology have reinforced the advantages they had.''

The latest Census figures bear this out. The Oregon counties with the biggest increases in population were all within the Portland metropolitan area.

The county with the biggest rate of increase was Deschutes in central Oregon, where high-tech, lots of golf courses, beautiful mountains and Oregon's biggest ski resort have transformed a sleepy timber town. While it is far to the east of Interstate 5, it is within the magic three-hour drive of Portland.

``How this plays out, I don't think is really understood at this point,'' Strathman said. ``But it's not as one-sided as people think.''