Westerville is a northeastern suburb of Columbus, capital of the state of Ohio, and home to nearly 40,000 people. It takes its name from the Dutch family that founded it in the 1800s. It was a small place that eventually became known as the “Dry Capital of the World,” based on an 1859 law that forbid the sale of alcohol in the city and the decision of the Anti-Saloon League – which played a leading role in Prohibition – to move its national headquarters there in 1909. It was only in the 1990s, when Westerville annexed land that included alcohol-selling businesses, that local prohibition began to change.
In the more than two decades since, Westerville has made a career of embracing change. In 2007, the city began planning expansion of an existing government fiber network to support smart-grid applications. (Like many smaller US cities, it owns its own electric utility.) The planning process revealed a lack of affordable choices for broadband and data center services. That ultimately led City Council to found WeConnect: an underground fiber network connected to a community-owned data center and delivering 100 Gbps connectivity to municipal service providers, businesses, schools, the local university and research institutes.
The network and carrier-neutral community data center began operations in 2012. By 2018, more than 40 miles of the fiber network had been lit. After an investment of more than US$6 million, WeConnect has been profitable three out of the first six years of operation – and its impact has been much greater than mere speed or capacity. The city spent more than 85% of funds with businesses within a two-mile radius of City Hall, creating jobs and profits that benefited the community. The network and data center have saved customers more than $2 million since 2014, with one customer crediting the network with helping avoid a $1 million capital expense for its own data center. WeConnect has also become an important attractor to business that, when bundled into incentive packages, has helped persuade site selectors to give the community a closer look.
Benefits of the Smart Grid
The municipal utility, Westerville Electric Division, got smart-grid applications that sparked the network’s construction. The utility’s operations date back to 1898, but since WeConnect went live, it has rolled out services including advanced metering and an online portal, which let customers monitor electric and water usage by the hour, and a Rush Hour Rewards Program, that offers rebates to customer who let the utility adjust their air-conditioning to better manage peak loads. Realizing that most energy-saving programs target large corporations, it introduced a Small BusinessWISE program that provides energy-efficiency consultants to audit small businesses and recommend changes that will save money.
New Pathways to a Career
In 2014, Westerville was one of 14 central Ohio school districts that shared funding for initiatives called Career Pathways, which aim to create new post-secondary education options for students while closing workforce gaps. All are member of the Central Ohio Compact, an agreement among educational institutions to improve access to educational achievement for the next generation. The Health Career Pathways is a collaboration among nine school districts, Columbus State Community College (CSCC) and healthcare providers including Westville’s Mount Carmel Health System. Beginning as early as their first year in high school, students can enroll in the program, which combines high school and college coursework with shadowing of medical professionals. They earn dual credit and have the potential to finish high school with a credential as a clinical lab assistant. The program was piloted in the spring of 2018 with student rotations in two hospital departments; it proved so successful that the rotations have expanded to 16 different spots.
The Business Logistics Pathway – also a collaboration of CSCC and industry partners – leads to certification as a logistics associate and technician. This earned credit puts students on track to complete a two-year associates degree in supply chain management with only one year of additional coursework, and the opportunity to apply this education to completion of a four-year degree. The Engineering Pathways prepares students for careers in computer-assisted manufacturing, a sector that represents more than 86,000 jobs in central Ohio and is projected to continue growing. Ten school districts, Sinclair Community College and industry partners collaborate to build skills in advanced manufacturing, robotics, design and fabrication. In the most recent year, enrollment grew by 17% for Business Logistics and 100% for Health. Twenty-seven students earned a clinical laboratory assistant certificate in the program’s first two years.
Otterbein University in Westerville dates back to 1847 and was the first coeducational college in the United States to admit women to study alongside men in the same classes. In 2016, in another advance, it opened The Point, a new science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) innovation center that ties academics to the business and manufacturing needs of the community. The Point provides office space and support for startups, lab space and prototyping services for small-to-midsize manufacturers, a makerspace for the community and dedicated education spaces for school students. It does not claim ownership of the innovations developed there, a policy it shares with the University of Waterloo in Canada, which is renowned for its ability to generate new companies. The feasibility study for the center projected that it would create 200 new jobs in five years totaling US$16 million in payroll and $3.6 million in state and local taxes.
Welcoming the Stranger
Digital equality is the province of the Westerville Public Library. In 1994, it became the first library in the state to offer patrons full access to the internet. It now offers computer labs and training targeted at patrons from job seekers to senior citizens, as well as a Kid’s Center, Teen Center and Gaming Room. Anyone baffled by a technology program can get personalized help through the “Borrow a Librarian” program, while the “Borrow the Internet” program lets patrons without internet access at home borrow a Wi-Fi mobile hotspot.
In recent years, the library has targeted the immigrant population of the region. Central Ohio is home to the second largest Somali population in the US and the largest Bhutanese Nepali population outside Bhutan. In 2015-16, the library won a grant to host Somali language and culture classes, and in 2018, a grant that made it possible to launch technology classes in Somali and Nepali, taught by local Somali and Nepali teachers. Demand has been strong from immigrants eager to make a home in the community.
Rising to Challenge
In February 2018, two Westerville police officers were slain as they responded to a domestic violence call – the first deaths of active-duty officers in the city’s 160-year history. Over the next two weeks, the city’s handling of communications and logistics – largely enabled by technology – would prove critical in forging community unity around the tragedy.
As local and national media picked up the story, the city’s Community Affairs department used Google Drive to disseminate news and respond to media inquiries. City officials were assigned to social media listening to allow the city to respond to misinformation and share the facts. With the establishment of the #WestervilleStrong hashtag, people in the community gained a way to stay updated, express their grief and connect with others through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. It also helped city officials monitor the social media conversation and set an appropriate tone.
Total social media reach during the period topped 2.5 million. The WestervilleStrong Facebook group grew to more than 6,000 followers and, seven months later, was still growing. But the daily number of attempted cyberattacks and phishing emails also doubled during the two weeks that followed the shootings. The city’s established cyber-monitoring systems and user protocols thwarted all attempts to hack the government’s network.
Westerville has benefited from its proximity to another Intelligent Community – Dublin, home of an ICF Global Institute. It was through the work of that Institute that first came to see its efforts as part of a comprehensive approach to economic and social development in the digital age, and to begin identifying ways to fill gaps and accelerate its progress. Proud of its heritage, Westerville is targeting a future in which suburban and even rural cities have the same opportunities as big cities to make the tech revolution pay off for its people.