On January 19, 2022

Hartland-based nonprofit supports rural entrepreneurs

By Curt Peterson

Five years ago popular Hartland politician and businessman Matt Dunne founded the Center of Rural Innovation (CORI) in a yoga center in downtown Hartland to help rural towns strategize successful development in the tech-driven 21st Century economy.

“A single town would struggle on its own,” Dunne told the Mountain Times. “Our goal is to network 50 towns with accelerated innovation programs, to share ideas, assets and opportunities in order to meet challenges that will face tomorrow’s entrepreneurs.”

The Hartland yoga center was the starting place of the Center of Rural Innovation.

CORI’s network now includes 25 rural towns, and there are 10 more “in the pipeline.”

Projects in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota and Maine among others, are operating, according to the CORI website. The non-profit employs 44 full-time, plus eight AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers.

The 2008 recession produced a narrative implying one can’t build a tech enterprise in a rural community, Dunne said. Urban areas recovered, and rural America has not — 15% of workers live in rural areas, and only 5% of tech jobs are available to them. People leave small towns and don’t return.

Gov. Phil Scott hopes to attract people to Vermont to work remotely for urban businesses while they enjoy the more rural lifestyle.

Dunne feels that’s not a sustainable strategy. Long-term success will require attracting entrepreneurs to create and build businesses here.

“Zoom towns are not the answer,” he said.

Dunne and Scott agree universal broadband internet access is necessary to attract new and returning Vermonters.

“Broadband is the electrification of our time,” Dunne said, referring to the New Deal Rural Electrification project. “Both are necessary to make progress possible.”

CORI’s first project supported development of the Black River Innovation Center in Springfield — it helped raise $2 million, giving them “street cred” with federal, corporate and foundation funders.

Grants from sources such as Walmart, Land O’Lakes and Linked-In were now attainable. Towns have raised $18.5 million with CORI’s help. And CORI raised $4.1 million for its own seed fund for start-ups.

“Springfield had good internet access,” Dunne said.

Randolph, with ECFiber internet, has another CORI-supported project.

“High-speed internet isn’t as rare in rural areas as the post-2008 narrative portrays,” Dunne said. “Rural communications isn’t two Dixie cups and a string anymore.”

Internet access is just one qualification for prospective CORI beneficiaries.

“Is there a college or university within 40 minutes? Is tech talent already in evidence? Are there local amenities, a brewery, good healthcare, schools, childcare? If people come to Vermont, for example,” he said, “and start a family, they won’t move back if we have these things. We want to reverse the exodus, particularly by young people, not to lock them into staying in a small town.”

CORI reaches out through non-profits that have already developed lists of towns that might qualify for innovation assistance. One hundred twenty towns have responded.

A recent “pitch competition” attracted 10 start-ups competing for a $10,000 prize. The winning group, in rural Michigan, is developing technology for collecting space junk discarded by satellite and exploration projects.

A CORI data analysis team provides information to help leaders direct rural projects, and a mapping group helps evaluate regions and localities for prospective development. Another group studies broadband access probabilities and strategies.

Dunne said they work with educators and tech centers to incorporate 6-10 week classes in tech skills to build a ready and able rural workforce. In addition CORI has engaged national training advisors who help local leaders provide hybrid tech skills training.

But what’s most important is the people who want to stay and work in rural areas.

“Farmers are born innovators,” Dunne, who has lived in Hartland most of his life, said. “They have to find a way to overcome the challenges they face every day. They can prove the urban versus tech narrative wrong.”

Dunne, who is running for re-election as Hartland’s moderator, has extensive tech, management, non-profit organization and political experience and connections, and lives on the farm his parents purchased while they were still students.

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