Expanding Telework Economy is at the Heart of Northwest NC Initiative

For the upcoming ReCONNECT to Technological Opportunity forum on Feb. 10 in Raleigh, the Institute for Emerging Issues has chosen five community initiatives from throughout North Carolina that will share with our forum audience how they’re working to best leverage high speed broadband for economic growth and community improvement. Here, we profile the initiative out of northwest North Carolina, led by Wilkes Community College.

Therapists meeting with clients virtually. Farmers selling cattle all over the world. University professors teaching courses in other states. These are just a few examples of a workforce using high speed internet in rural northwest North Carolina to participate in the larger national and global economy.

Three counties in northwest NC—Ashe, Alleghany, and Wilkes—are at the center of an initiative led by Wilkes Community College to expand that telework economy. 

“Our mission and vision at its core is about empowering more citizens with education that leads to living wage jobs and promising careers,” said Zach Barricklow, Vice President of Strategy at Wilkes Community College. “That means a couple of things. It means intentionally recruiting more folks out of the urban centers who can live and work here, and so thereby bringing talent to our region, and it also means equipping our local workforce with the skills and the tools to access that national and global economy from here.”

“Our mission and vision at its core is about empowering more citizens with education that leads to living wage jobs and promising careers,” said Zach Barricklow, Vice President of Strategy at Wilkes Community College. Photo used with permission by SkyLine Membership Corporation.

To accomplish this, a regional team has formed made up of economic developers, local government, internet providers and entrepreneurs. Their first milestone is the upcoming launch of an online platform for startups in Northwest NC. The site, which will be found at startupnwnc.com, will host resources, provide support, and tell stories of entrepreneurship in the area.

The next phase of their plan is to catalogue the stories they have from entrepreneurs, teleworkers and freelancers and identify how the region can improve. This will lead to a more formalized assessment followed by a coordinated branding, promotion and recruitment campaign.

There are already many people in the area taking advantage of the connectivity. Barricklow himself is one. He and his wife moved to Sparta, NC, where he says he enjoys faster internet speeds than where they previously lived in Chapel Hill, NC. 

The robust internet service is the result of decades-long efforts by several communications groups, including SkyLine Membership Corporation, Wilkes Communications, Ridge Link, MDC and others. Thanks to their efforts, the region was home to gig-capable fiber before such urban areas as Charlotte, Atlanta and Miami.

The robust internet service in northwest NC is the result of decades-long efforts by several communications groups, including SkyLine Membership Corporation, Wilkes Communications, Ridge Link, MDC and others. Thanks to their efforts, the region was home to gig-capable fiber before such urban areas as Charlotte, Atlanta and Miami. Photo used with permission by SkyLine Membership Corporation.

“We’re the best little secret, and we don’t want it to be a secret,” said Karen Powell, Public Relations Administrator with SkyLine Membership Corporation. “We need to keep reminding folks how advanced we are. Outsiders looking in are thinking, oh it’s rural, it’s isolated, it’s probably lacking in many areas. But we are rich with technology here.”

Barricklow says he sees the team’s participation in the ReCONNECT to Technological Opportunity community cohort as an opportunity to solidify the team and learn from other groups who are doing similar work across the state.

“We have a lot of different types of people who want to see this region thrive and are interested in exploring this new channel to opportunity, and so we want to strengthen that team,” said Barricklow. “We want to learn from other communities as opposed to reinventing the wheel.”

Learn more about the Northwest NC initiative during the Institute for Emerging Issues ReCONNECT to Technological Opportunity forum on February 10 in Raleigh.