Internet age creates new rural opportunity

Worth A Look, Disruption, Frontier Centre

With high-speed internet and low-cost long distance, you can do a computer-related job from anywhere. Communication technology really does open up the world outside cities to many who would rather work in a small town or in the countryside.

I spend most of my time in front of the computer or on the phone. I also spend part of it visiting farms and taking pictures. To do these parts of my job, I could be based anywhere in south of Ashern and The Pas and work just as efficiently as I do now. What might keep me from making the shift is overseeing assembly of the paper — and day to day interaction with my co-workers. An absent editor might be a resented editor. Or maybe not.

Many other office workers don't have the same co-worker responsibilities. They could really work anywhere, and a growing number are taking advantage. According to a study by Bob Sopuck with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, which is based in Winnipeg, about 2,000 "lone eagles" have settled in rural Manitoba.

Lone eagles, a term created by the Centre for the New West in Denver, are "self-employed information professionals who live in rural areas". They can be engineers, lawyers, writers, accountants, computer techies, etc.

Why do they live in rural settings? Perhaps they long for respite from traffic and big box stores. They want a piece of riverfront property without neighbors or 160 acres of woodland for their kids to build forts and watch deer. Maybe they want their kids in a small-town school.

In his study, Sopuck talked to a number of lone eagles. One, a computer consultant, moved to Sandy Lake because "his family would be free to build the kind of home and business they want." Another, a technical writer, moved to the Duck Mountain area "because of a lifelong desire to live in a rural setting."

Yet another is a electrical engineer in Dauphin. From his home office, he is working with an architect in Winnipeg and an mechanical engineer in Kenora to design a building for Dryden, Ontario. He couldn't do his job without top-notch communication infrastructure.

Dauphin is okay in this regard, but many regions still don't have high-speed internet and reliable cell phone service. This must change to lure lone eagles.

And even with high-speed internet, most small towns will continue to shrink, unfortunately. But dynamic and well-serviced towns might the communication age as a glimmer of hope.

"Instead of chasing smokestacks," Sopuck wrote, "rural communities should take advantage of the environmental and social amenities they have to offer. The priority for enhancing their economies must shift from the pursuit of urban-style industrial expansion to an emphasis on communications infrastructure and environmental quality."

As I said, not all towns are ideally suited to lone eagles. Many of these lifestyle-seeking professionals are still looking for a reasonable level of service, especially in education, health and transportation. That doesn't mean they're looking for the highest standards. They want a school nearby, a good highway that will get them to Winnipeg airport within half a day, and the basics in health care.

Finally, communities need one other thing to make them attractive — and that's a warm and inviting atmosphere.

Most Co-operator readers are familiar with small-town life. When it's good, it's really good. Everyone knows you. Teachers know what your kids need and how they work because they teach four grades. People wave at you on the highway, and won't think twice about helping you if you're stuck. A neighbor once flagged me down on No. 21 Highway because I had left the emergency brake on the truck and the back end was smoking like crazy.

But for all the good that small towns offer, they can be lonely for newcomers and way too small if you've done something to embarrass yourself or to annoy a neighbor. It can take a lifetime to live down a mistake.

When you're an active part of the community and have a tight circle of friends, small towns can be warm and cozy. When you're new and different, small towns can be cold.

A woman told me once that her town was "cliquey" — the same people get together who have always got together. She moved back to her home town after a long time away, and it took years for her to feel comfortable again. Even now, she feels like an outsider.

I hate to get preachy, but sometimes it takes an outside opinion like mine before townsfolk look at what they can do differently. Lone eagles, like anyone, will talk. If they have a great experience in your town, they'll tell their friends. If they're having an awful time, and if someone asks, they'll say 'stay far far away'.

The lone eagle from Sandy Lake in Sopuck's report said he moved there because his friends have also settled there. You see clustered of European immigrants in certain areas and not others for the same reason. If you have one lone eagle, and treat them well, you'll probably get more.

I see a great opportunity for small towns to attract new people in the communication age. Sopuck's 2,000 lone eagles don't sound like much if your in Winnipeg, where 680,000 people would hardly notice if 2,000 people left. But 2,000 people spread across rural Manitoba means 20 smart and well-paid people for 100 communities. That is a big deal.

Manitoba Cooperator