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Technology Stimulus Funding: Can public/private partnerships work?

The economy is down, with many businesses struggling to survive. For public agencies and non-profits, shrinking tax revenues and increased competition for grants is equally intense. A new $7 billion round of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus funds targets increased access to low-cost broadband, recognizing the positive and synergistic impact this can create on education, the environment, and small business — the latter which has long been the backbone of the American economy.

In Kitsap, broadband also offers an alternative to commuters. In 2004, Kitsap Regional Telecommunications Committee was declared a success and disbanded while other efforts continued. Various Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council (KRCC) initiatives such a T3 (Techno-tools and Telework) and Kit-Net are attempting to improve public sector networking and use of broadband. An 18 month Telework Pilot Project with a July 1 delivery date to the Legislature sought employers and employees interested in telecommuting at home or in a telework center one or two days a week.

Literature distributed to ferry riders yielded little interest. Perhaps some were too preoccupied to respond to information gathering. Or they were already telecommuting and didn’t need to be sold. Perhaps the economic shift since the project began had individuals concerned about relevance with employers, wanting to remain visible. And perhaps employers were too busy trying to stay afloat to spare additional time for the pilot. Whatever the reason, the question of how to help some of those commuters remains.

Recently, Kitsap County Green Projects was formed to determine which projects would receive 2.29 million in federal stimulus funding towards cutting down on energy use. On the broadband side, the only proposal was a public telework “kiosk” which would provide free services. The asking price? $1.5 million We were advised of a private sector client working on a telework center in the Sheridan/Perry Avenue area of Bremerton. T3 had just begun to consider changing its proposal to include partnership with businesses offering surplus space towards this purpose. A seemingly perfect marriage was born, and we produced a draft proposal in less than 24 hours. The price tag, including broadband? $140,000.

This funding and fluid strategic partnerships would transform office space into an Entrepreneur/Telework/Distance Learning (ETDL) center, housing twelve shared offices and three video teleconferencing (VTC) meeting rooms. It would offer a web portal for online reservations and payment, and shared technology resources (VoIP phones, computers, remote file sharing). Staff and video security would ensure safety for extended hours. Teleworkers, distance learning students, and military spouses currently traveling to the bases for VTC to Iraq or Afghanistan were all potential users.

More importantly, the focus was entrepreneurs and small startups — those who’d either opened businesses after losing jobs, were veterans or retired DoD professionals, or existing home-based businesses seeking a professional location or quiet workspace on an occasional basis. The location offered free parking, and included other small businesses, residents, and seniors who could benefit from the boost broadband could bring to this underserved area.

Similar to the Open Source model, this project would be documented, refined, scaled, or replicated. Small centers could be created in different parts of the county. The real winner was stimulating the economy by improving opportunities for small businesses and innovative entrepreneurs who would then began to seek credit - a key goal of stimulus funding.

Workforce Development Council recently conducted a mailing and follow up event, with 80 veterans/spouses interesting in mentoring towards starting up new businesses. Olympic College spoke of students who were retraining for new jobs or entrepreneur efforts. Kitsap Economic Development Alliance (KEDA) and West Sound Technology (WSTA) regularly learned of new businesses in response to quickly changing economic times. Thus, our goal with the proposal was to keep the process lean, adaptable, and flexible to demand while also being responsive.

This initial draft was enthusiastically received, and over the next few weeks we included energy efficiency enhancements from a local HVAC company, ergonomic and LEED-advantage configuration from a local furniture manufacturer, marketing, policy, and information technology consulting from local experts, and broadband to building by Kitsap Public Utilities District. After including all labor and startup costs towards 60-90 days implementation and operation for the first year (at which time the center would sustain itself from user fees, partner funding, and grants), the total cost was under $300,000. This was a fraction of the initial public proposal and included plans to charge sub-market (not free) rates for a robust and comprehensive 21st century package.

Despite its promise and design, our project did not make the cut for funding given more “green” finalists. Nonetheless, still available broadband stimulus funding can make this pilot a reality beyond the information gathering stage and point where many other projects gather dust on a shelf unrealized. However, we must act quickly. There are questions to answer by touching base with currently proposed partners regarding data, which can support marketing efforts, but this is not an idea which should be appropriated or subsumed under a series of process or studies. As new ideas and opportunities abound, it is incumbent upon government to reduce its bureaucratic process and truly partner with the private sector so that funds can be freed from the bottleneck towards stimulating small business and entrepreneurs. Private industry must then be accountable and efficient.

As we move forward to make our vision a reality, we invite all readers interested in more details or partnership opportunities to contact us.

(Editor’s Note: Doña Keating is President and CEO of Professional Options (www.professionaloptions.org), a prominent innovator in the policy and consulting industry which creates solutions for businesses, organizations and governmental agencies. She is also president of West Sound Technology Association (WSTA — www.westsoundtechnology.org), which has promoted a technology future for the West Sound since 2000. Charles Keating has been president of Keating Consulting Service (www.kcsco.com), an IT consulting practice, for 26 years. The firm started in Chicago and migrated to the Seattle area in 1996. He is also Vice President and Treasurer of WSTA.)

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