City can learn online lesson

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Every year, several dozen people from Colorado Springs take what’s well known as the Regional Leaders Trip, visiting cities to see what they have that we might replicate.

Those trips have gone to Austin, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Oklahoma City; Portland, Ore.; Omaha, Neb., and Salt Lake City. From each, the contingent returned with ideas that have led to changes big and small — cultivating higher-ed partnerships, enabling food trucks, developing downtown alleys, repurposing warehouses, merging the Economic Development Corp. with the Chamber of Commerce and more.

But one outcome has been realizing that we never could have the venues, transit networks, huge corporate support and state-level cooperation other cities possess. We haven’t had the resources, or unity among business and elected leaders, to make big changes happen and upgrade our area’s identity and personality.

Instead of cities with attributes that we can’t match, maybe we should look for places more like us. Here’s one we’ve encountered:

Chattanooga, in the southeastern corner of Tennessee, about 120 miles north of Atlanta. It might look much smaller, with a population of about 175,000 — but its market area grew from about 476,000 in 2000 to 528,143 in 2010. That makes it more our size.

The biggest attraction there is Lookout Mountain, which looms over Chattanooga and lures tourists from afar, as Pikes Peak does here. Obviously, it’s easier to drive or ride their version of an incline railway to the top of Lookout at 2,391 feet above sea level, but that’s high above Chattanooga’s downtown at 675 feet. The scenery helps that area make a big deal about outdoor recreation, which might teach us some quickly applicable lessons.

But the No. 1 thing Chattanooga has going for it is The Gig. That’s gig, as in gigabyte, the standard for a concerted effort to provide lightning-fast (1 gig, or 1,000 megabits per second) Internet service for all businesses and residents. The folks there did it by making Internet part of its municipally owned utility company.

Comcast and AT&T didn’t like having competition from a public-owned utility that could deliver fiber-optic services along with existing electrical service. But it became reality, starting in 2008. As a result, Chattanooga has added 1,000 primary jobs in the past few years with an expanding Volkswagen plant along with a good-sized Amazon.com presence, all credited directly to the massive Internet capability.

Not only has Chattanooga’s economy improved, the city has plenty of downtown-area facilities, from a 20,000-seat stadium for college football and concerts to a 12,000-seat indoor arena, a minor-league baseball park and a convention center with 185,000 square feet of space that can handle 8,000 people theater-style, 6,300 for large banquets and ballrooms with capacities of 1,200 to 2,300.

One Colorado city has noticed the power of a major Internet commitment. Longmont voters approved the idea in 2011, then last year said yes to a $45 million plan delivering mega-fast, inexpensive Internet to all homes and businesses, some already online with speeds up to 100 times faster than we have in Colorado Springs.

There’s nothing about what has happened in Chattanooga and Longmont that couldn’t happen in Colorado Springs — far sooner than we realize.

We can jump on this now and, sooner than many realize, move closer toward our city of the future.