Earlier this year, Toledo became one of five towns chosen from a pool of 300 applicants across the nation to participate in the federal government's Cool and Collected Communities initiative.
The program doesn't include any federal funds, but instead sends representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other government agencies to rural communities in order to facilitate discussions and offer input and guidance gleaned from previous projects of a similar nature.
The goal of the initiative is to boost the vitality of rural communities through the implementation of technology and the creation of popular public spaces, such as WiFi-connected parks and interactive nature trails.
On Thursday, federal government representatives paid a visit to Toledo as part of a day-long community workshop and open house where Toledo citizens and stakeholders were invited to brainstorm and provide guidance for their visions on the future growth of the town.
The workshop began at 8:30 a.m. and ran through 4 p.m., with the open house following suit from 5:30 p.m. until 7 p.m. During that time, a smorgasbord of ideas and concepts were bandied about and compiled by the government representatives in attendance.
According to a poster referenced by Sarah Kackar, a community element development consultant for the federal government, the five keys to the Cool and Connected effort are planning infrastructure, economic development, connected community identity, alternate transit and downtown revitalization. A primary focus of all of those components is the use of Wi-Fi connections around Toledo proper, and its outskirts, in order to increase visitor and tourist traffic to the South Lewis County town. Projects that have a high likelihood of being completed within the next several years were given particular preference.
During her presentation, Kackar applauded the strong turnout of Toledo citizens for the workshop and noted the unique opportunity to be able to direct the project’s scope through input from “your friends and neighbors.”
One of the factors that Kackar said likely helped Toledo land the Cool and Collected Initiative from a highly competitive feed of applicants was a cooperative government hierarchy. Kackar pointed out the involvement of Toledo Mayor Steve Dobosh, County Commissioner Edna Fund and U.S. House Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and noted that it “speaks to the level of engagement across levels of governments, especially for a small town.”
Since the first five communities were selected, an additional 10 communities from the Appalachian region have been added to the program. Ed Fendley, project coordinator for the EPA, has been involved in implementation of the Cool and Connected initiative in many of those communities. During the open house event at Toledo Middle School, he expressed optimism in Toledo’s prospects going forward.
“This is Toledo’s plan and we saw tremendous excitement and great ideas,” said Fendley. “I think there’s a great chance now for Toledo to carry all of this out.”
Fendley pointed out that although the initiative is of federal origin, the implementation of the particular projects will be left largely up to the town of Toledo itself.
“We are the facilitators here. It’s Toledo’s plan and it’s up to Toledo residents to carry forward, and I think they will,” said Fendley, who noted the presence of a fiber optic cable network in Toledo that many much larger communities do not have. He said that the main thrust of the Cool and Connected Communities initiative is to encourage rural towns to use expanding technology resources as a means to a prosperous end.
Fendley noted that the presence of broadband in and of itself is not likely to be reason enough for people to move to, or even visit, the area.
He says that’s why the technology needs to be coupled with concepts such as downtown revitalization, nature trail creation and ubiquitous Wi-Fi hotspots, so as to create connected spaces that people are inclined to visit and talk about.
“I think Toledo really has the potential to do more in all of these categories,” said Fendley.
Like Kackar, Fendley lauded the diverse and sustained level of participation from Toledo area residents in the effort to first nab the Cool and Collected initiative, and then to continue working on its shaping and implementation.
“I think one of the great things you have is the consistency of leadership of the city, ToledoTel and active residents. Sometimes you see pieces of that, but for Toledo to have all of that, I don’t think we’ve seen that before,” said Fendley.
Mayor Dobosh said that the efforts of ToledoTel to provide thorough and high quality internet access to Toledo residents was likely a primary reason that the small town was chosen to participate in the Cool and Collected program.
That fiber optic network covers 386 square miles, creating a connectivity square from the U.S. Highway 12 junction down Interstate 5 roughly to the I-5 Bridge, and then east “until you run out of people.” Dale Merten, COO of ToledoTel, says that the network comes within 1 mile of Salkum on the northeast end and that the level of service provided exceeds that available in most of Los Angeles. Merten says that the ToledoTel network offers internet speeds of one gigabit across the board and noted that speeds that fast are only available in the downtown core of Los Angeles.
“Most people in Washington would be lucky to get five megabytes,” said Merten.
Dobosh said he is excited to see what the progressive strides in Toledo will eventually mean for his children and grandchildren.
“I’m always looking toward the future, and I think this is going to open the door for things to happen for us,” said Dobosh, who noted several examples of new residents and businesses who have already moved to Toledo in order to take advantage of the prime internet access.
“When we’ve got people moving here like that, that’s going to help the whole town,” said Dobosh.