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In Defense of a Good Patchwork Quilt

July 9, 2004 By

Hamiota, a village of 850 people in Manitoba, Canada, is the kind of place that seems to have been around forever, though like many rural communities, its future seems less certain.

Its intensely practical residents are intuitively suspicious of silver bullet solutions to what ails their community -- including seemingly sure-fire plans for planes and potatoes pursued by larger centers up the highway. The respective strategies did not work out so well for the former home of the Winnipeg Jets with its dashed aerospace aspirations, or the self-described potato capitol of the province given the current difficulties it faces from low-carb mania.

Even in the hyperbolic 1990s, they resisted the temptation to bet the farm -- a term used here both figuratively and literally -- on oversold dot-com promises. They instead prefer to view the Internet not as a strategy in itself, but as a utility -- much the same way they use electricity and water.

If there is a strategy, it is that of a patchwork quilt -- a term too often used pejoratively by think tanks and policy analysts complaining about disjointed approaches to rural economic development. Using the term that way misses the strength, integrity and beauty that results when previously discrete fabrics are sewn together with care.

I was reminded of our frequent misuse of the term when I last returned to Hamiota for my mother-in-law's funeral. Rachel Routledge is remembered for, among many things, transforming second-hand material from the local thrift shop into sturdy, warm and visually stunning patchwork quilts -- most of which she gave away.

The patchwork quilt is an apt metaphor for how communities like this work, with a deep-seated prairie ethic of helping your neighbor, working hard, eating hardy, shopping local and wasting little. Rachel was never known to have touched a computer, but when a then-government-owned telephone company laid a fiber-optic backbone along the highway that runs through town, she became a keen observer of Hamiota's introduction to a networked world and the economic patchwork that resulted:

?Three computer shops opened to support a growing number of PC users in the community (while providing much needed in-town income to support the respective owners' farming habit).

?Farmers now see detailed weather forecasts online and manage costly crop inputs with scientific precision.

?The town has taken advantage of NIMBY concerns in other communities by attracting three new (and clean) hog operations and the jobs that accompany them -- and each networked facility tracks market demand in real time.

?Routine telemedicine helped recruit and retain the regional medical center's five doctors (a number that is the envy of towns many times its size) and allows them to manage patient care and consult with colleagues and specialists in larger centers.

?Historic buildings on Main Street were rehabilitated with broadband access to support new businesses and host youth programs in heritage buildings, augmenting the online curricula available in the town's two wired schools.

?Hamiota constructed a telecommunications mast, which dwarfs the town's water tower. The mast will provide improved cellular coverage and a local presence for WiMAX, which provides high-speed wireless access in a 30-mile radius and addresses the historically bedeviling and expensive last mile to farmhouses and cottages.

?Even before WiMAX, Hamiota saw the first sign of what Manitoba's Rural Renaissance Center calls "Lone Eagles" (more on them in next month's column). They are, in short, disaffected urban knowledge workers who are attracted to the rural lifestyle, and whose arrival represents the latest row on the interdependent patchwork quilt of economic development.

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