Rural advocate: Small towns need better roads, online access

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

MACOMB, Ill. -- Illinois needs to upgrade both rural roads and its online information highway to keep people and businesses from bypassing the thousands of small towns that dot the state, the retiring founder of a statewide rural advocacy group says.

Norm Walzer said small towns have generally rebounded since the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs was launched in 1989, but could again face job and population declines without basic infrastructure he says now includes high-speed Internet as well as pavement.

"If you're used to high-speed Internet access and you do a lot of shopping and everything else on line, then the rural areas are no longer as attractive," said Walzer, 62, who will continue as a consultant after retiring today from the Western Illinois University-based institute.

Internet providers say high-speed service is sometimes cost prohibitive in pockets of Illinois where there are too few potential customers to justify installing required fiber optic lines.

Providers say they are exploring other options to speed Internet connections in rural Illinois, which comprises about 75 percent of the state. Verizon Communications will soon evaluate a pilot program launched last summer in three Illinois towns that provides high-speed Internet through a fixed wireless service, spokesman Bill Kula said.

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said the state is studying its own alternatives because Internet providers have responded too slowly, limiting rural access to health care and other online services. He said ideas include cooperatives similar to the ones that extended electricity to rural America in the early 1900s.

"You cannot have an Internet system where some people are left out and left behind. It has to be a universal system," said Quinn, chairman of the Governor's Rural Affairs Council.

Walzer said expanding and upgrading the state's highway system is another key for rural Illinois, which he said has reversed population losses and high unemployment rates that prompted the state to create the institute.

"We know that these multilane highways in rural areas can be a big economic boom and a lifeline for these small communities. There are a lot of good projects out there, there's just limited funding," said Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Vanover.

Walzer said jobs top his wish list for rural Illinois, where a 1 percent population increase between 1990 and 2000 trailed an average gain of more than 7 percent in neighboring states.

He said a shortage of high-paying jobs likely fueled a more than 3 percent decrease of people 44 and under in rural Illinois over the decade.

"What really drives whether people come here or stay here is whether they can get good jobs and whether they can get them at good pay. What is not happening that needs to is that we are clearly lagging the urban areas in terms of pay," said Walzer, who still owns the family farm where he grew up near Mendota in central Illinois.

Cornfields that cover much of the state could provide some of those jobs, producing ethanol, biodiesel and other grain-related products, Walzer said. Small logistics and distribution businesses also could replace factory jobs that have vanished from small towns over the last two decades, he said.

Walzer said rural Illinois also will continue to benefit from lower land costs and crime rates that have spawned growth of bedroom communities around the state, especially in northern Illinois as commuters seek alternatives to Chicago and its suburbs.

"I think given a choice, given a roughly equivalent real wage in terms of what it would buy, a lot of people would choose to live in a rural environment," Walzer said.

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