Communities in the Appalachian countryside of Southeast Ohio have
been devastated by the collapse of the mining industries that were
once their mainstay. "It’s not only the economic
disaster," explains Russ Combs, director of the Technology
Ventures division of the Appalachian
Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) in Athens, Ohio. "It’s
the emotional disaster." Technology is helping to build the
capacity of those communities by strengthening their inherent
assets. ACEnet has built a so-called "flexible network"
that enables disparate food service businesses throughout the
Appalachian region to generate more business by communicating with
and learning from each other.
The network—which includes an electronic mailing list, web
pages, email, and online databases of vendors and customers—is
designed to enable businesses to communicate without centralized
control. For example, businesses that make different kinds of food
products, such as local bakeries and sausage-making operations, use
the network to share information on suppliers and distributors. One
Appalachian salsa company
used ACEnet’s vendor database as well as other components of the
network (e.g., an online forum from which they learned about trade
shows) to grow from a mom-and-pop shop with annual sales of $60,000
to an eight-person operation that is expected to rack up more than
$600,000 in sales this year.
"There is simply no regimen to it," Combs says of
ACEnet’s flexible network. "Everybody contacts everybody, and
everybody works together for the common good. If we all work
together at it, we all win."