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Wack: Spread word of fiber network to draw business to Westminster

Wack: Spread word of fiber network to draw business to Westminster
Robert Wack writes from Westminster where he serves on the Common Council. (Courtesy photo)

Ask your neighbors why they moved to Westminster and you will likely hear a few common answers — close-knit community, good schools, beautiful landscapes and safe neighborhoods. I know these were the reasons my wife and I moved our small family here over 20 years ago, and are why we have stayed all these years.

But is that enough? As our children grow, we think about other things, like helping them find good jobs that pay well, ideally close to home. Often young people have to move away to pursue opportunities and the careers they seek, creating the challenge of finding ways to counter the incessant pull of talented people of all ages away from our community. How do we create opportunities here locally, especially for our children and grandchildren?

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A few years ago, I wrote about the importance of infrastructure and technology for determining the economic fate of communities. If you hike along the C&O Canal, or ride bikes along the Northern Central Railroad trail that follows the old rail line running from Baltimore to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, you can see the ruins of once prosperous towns left behind by changes in technology. Those towns flourished because of the prosperity created by the canal and rail infrastructure, but when the technological and economic tides shifted, those towns withered, rotted and fell into ruin.

In Westminster, we’ve taken control of our destiny and set out on a different course. In the 21st  century, the reality is that the majority of businesses rely on the movement of data to increase efficiency, advertise goods and services, and much more. There is also an entirely new sector of high-tech businesses that operate mostly or even exclusively online.

These businesses are incredible source of good-paying jobs, and the beauty is that they can really be based anywhere. Most tech startups are not tied to any specific city or source of natural resource, so it’s up to us to show companies why the attractive amenities of our community makes it a good place for them to call home. State-of-the-art communications infrastructure which enables the fastest internet possible can be yet another reason to start or move a business to Westminster.

We have accomplished this with the construction of the nearly complete Westminster Fiber Network, or WFN. Westminster, like many once-rural communities, was ignored and neglected when it came to faster and better internet service. To encourage more local competition and lower the barrier to entry for new providers, the city started building the WFN, a critical first step taking control of our economic future.

The project is more than halfway complete, and already we are seeing early signs of interest in the Westminster community because of the WFN. More work promoting our new asset and the benefit it provides remains to be done. A lesson learned from other communities which have built fiber networks is that the “build it and they will come” strategy is insufficient for attracting new businesses.

The city, our business community and other partners need to work together to get the word out that the WFN — the mid-Atlantic region’s first, and so far, only communitywide gigabit fiber network — is open for business and ready to help them grow their data intensive 21st-century businesses.

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