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One of my favorite success stories comes from Greene County, North Carolina, where non-profit One Economy partnered with the local community leaders to transform a town. It is recounted in the Technology CEO Council’s 2007 “Great Nation” report.
From tobacco to technology—and new economic prospects
As recently as 2003, Greene County, N.C., located in the rural eastern part of the state, was ranked as the second most tobacco-dependent county in the United States. Generations of Greene County farmers harvested and sold flue-cured tobacco for decades, though this industry proved increasingly unsustainable as an economic base and opportunity platform for subsequent generations. Amid persistent poverty and educational underachievement—only 53 percent of high school students were proficient on state tests, and only about one in four seniors applied to college—Greene County leaders realized that they needed an economic future beyond tobacco.
Beginning in November 2003, a diverse team of stakeholders, including the county government, school and grassroots leaders, and social service providers, partnered with One Economy.com to respond to these economic changes. Investment began at the school level by bringing laptop computers to every student, beginning in sixth grade, and deploying an affordable wireless broadband solution for the entire county. Greene County launched a self-help Web site that includes non-tobacco agriculture options, an online marketplace, small business development information and career building opportunities. The site is pioneering Web-based solutions for rural America through locally generated content, such as the “Greene County Marketplace” and “Pest Alert.” Fifty technologically proficient teenagers are working throughout the county to offer technology training to others, while faith-based institutions and community organizations are using a mobile training lab to train people on how best to use this new technology.
Since the start of this project, students’ SAT composite scores have increased by 41 points, high school proficiency scores increased to 78 percent and more than 80 percent of the 2006 senior class applied to college. Last year, 12 new businesses opened in Greene County after years of negative business growth. Broadband access increased from 10 percent to 90 percent, with more than a dozen church and community buildings offering hot spots for free Internet access and free technology training. More than 350 residents, 40 percent of whom are senior citizens, have received free computer training. The county’s Web site is heavily trafficked. The community continues to add to the Web portal’s content, recently hosting a candidates’ forum and a place to highlight Greene County businesses online.