Brad Rowland was showing Theresa Benavidez and one of her clients around a new conference room when he noticed how excited the young man, Hunter Keohane, was about the 3D printing machine.
In fact, Hunter, who has high-functioning autism, was poring over the printer in the co-working space, excitedly mentioning figurines he was already printing at home. The 17-year-old is a fan of Warhammer.
His excitement gave Rowland had an idea.
How about, Rowland proposed, spending some time with the office printer each week? In the back of his mind, he was making a connection: maybe there was a way to get Hunter onto a path that would lead to a job.
Rowland, who left a stellar Silicon Valley career to be here, is part landlord, part cheerleader and part prophet for a new version of rural America. The Emergent Campus is in rural Florence, Colorado, population 3,800.
The small town is looking at a growing future and a national opportunity. The migrants who flooded into Denver and Boulder over the last 10 years are starting to spill southward. Like other places, the region where Florence is located, along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, has also seen pandemic migration. In 2020, 10-20% of Americans relocated, often away from big cities.
In Rowland’s eyes – and those of other changemakers I’ve met across the country in the past two years — rural America is the home of the next wave of social innovation.
If the 50s and 60s were the heyday of the suburbs, and the 80s and 90s were the rebirth of the cities, the 2020s might well become known for the second life of small towns. The rural advocates argue that small town America could become a place of abundant tech-enabled jobs and a new version of a middle-class life – one that’s potentially kinder, more connected, and closer to nature. The Emergent Campus is fully wired for broadband connections; the surrounding countryside is waiting for a big-company or government solution that will bring broadband the last miles into the homes of people who want it.
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“We have 20% of our workforce that’s not fully activated. So, what if instead of trying to create programs for people, we extend the infrastructure? Before the pandemic, that was harder for people to conceptualize.” Today, it’s not. “Let’s put all these pieces together and build the communities we want to live in,” Rowland said.
In communities like the one at Emergent, everybody ought to have a future — including Hunter.
From Idaho to Appalachia
The vision of rural life is spreading, as young people who found themselves burned out by the city tech scene move. Take Dan Berger, a New York City transplant who landed in Boise, Idaho, during the pandemic. “Initially, I was drawn to the environment, the landscape, the accessibility of different hobbies, which as a city kid, I never really experienced,” he said. “I eventually realized there are a lot of business opportunities here and a lot of really interesting people,” he told Times of Entrepreneurship.
Small town and rural America have suffered from stereotypes for years – including the idea that everyone who can leave, does. New arrivals find a more eclectic group of people than they expected. “People miss that (staying in a small town) is a question of values and circumstances, not ability,” Rowland.
Some people live in rural areas because they like a little distance from Big Tech centers that have become part and parcel of the political divisions in the United States. “These are issues we could reunite our country around,” said Joe Toscano, a tech and privacy entrepreneur who was featured in the film Social Dilemma and is now an advisor at Emergent Campus. “When I found Brad, what I saw in my mind was a group of people who are doing for rural America what I want to do. I’ve seen the place grow over the past few years. I do believe it has a lot of future potential.”
Rowland arrived in rural Colorado after the lifestyle of Silicon Valley burned him out. He had a stint at Symantec, was a member of an angel network, and, as a marketer, was in the C-Suite of two companies that were acquired. “I felt so drained,” he said. “It really felt like people used people to make money.”
The slower pace of life in a rural area helped him heal; his wife opened a martial arts studio and established a program to help people recover from PTSD.
After building a co-working community, TechSTART, in nearby Canon City, Rowland was open to something bigger – which arrived in 2019 in the form of the newly vacant 100-year-old old high school in Florence. Almost impossibly grand, it’s a white elephant by anybody’s definition: the wide hallways and 16-foot ceilings in some places echo with Florence’s past of oil fields and gold mines, before an explosion in 1925 leveled part of the town, and then the Dust Bowl hit, and then the manufacturing and energy industries shifted away.
Rowland and his partners set about renovating it a bit at a time and filling it with tenants, who range from locally grown tech firms to the outposts of big companies, to video production companies – to a local real estate agency and the behavioral therapy practice where Hunter goes to supplement home-schooling. Denver-based Pax 8 is the biggest catch to date. The top leases go for $20 a square foot, and now that some are being signed, Emergent has stopped “bleeding cash,” Rowland noted, saying that he and his current partners, Chris Koehn, and Ian Sturgeon, hope to win preservation grants to continue restoring the building. People can also become co-working members for $50 a month.
The Built Landscape
Rebuilding infrastructure is key in rural America, where the built landscape is often in disrepair. The last time rural America had a boom was around the extractive resources of the late 1800s and early 1900s. All over the country, rail towns, coal and lumber towns are coming back to life as the industries of yesterday recede to what are often beautiful environments. For instance, in Appalachia, Geoff and Sky Marietta are part of the influx of people from the urban East Coast. They both earned advanced degrees at Harvard and then moved to small-town Kentucky, where they own retail and real estate businesses.
“The wildlands and authentic culture are not replicable anywhere,” Geoff Marietta told me last year. “Appalachia is totally undiscovered yet has insane potential.”
Tourism helps – but it’s not the panacea that some had hoped.
“It is easy to get excited about increased sales tax and tourism energy, but over the long term, it is a thumb that many tourist-based economies struggle to get out from underneath. Rural-based tourism economies often struggle with low wages, housing shortages, and sufficient resources to serve a wider breadth of entrepreneurs,” said Delaney Keating, executive director of Startup Colorado, which also steered me to another potential boomtown, Trinidad.
Demographics are another issue. As the cities boomed, the populations of rural areas got older. In Maine, where efforts to create a tech workforce include a well-financed initiative called the Roux Institute, the population is the oldest in the country and aging fast. It remains to be seen whether the COVID flight, or the $1 billion poured into Roux is enough to reverse the trend.
Some things urban dwellers take for granted aren’t present in rural America – and those can be huge obstacles, Kristie Satterly acknowledges. She owns a data company called Data Nexus and volunteers at the Campus. Another transplant from big-city tech life, she’s giving me a guided tour.
The lack of transportation means that other students who might come to Emergent Campus as interns can’t make the trip. As in cities, economic disparities take some kids down before they’ve even had a chance. A job at McDonald’s pays more than an internship, which means some kids who are supporting their families have no choice but to opt for the former.
The opioid epidemic is a drumbeat of pain – and Satterly and Rowland understand one of the things they’re fighting is hopelessness.
The Human Potential
What rural America does have going for it, Rowland argues, is the human potential of people. They already have many of the skills that a job at a tech company might require. “They just haven’t had any exposure yet,” he said. In a talk he gave to the town’s small graduating class, he asked how many had envisioned a tech career. “One young lady raised her hand,” he said. Then he asked how many in the room were gamers. “Every hand in the room went up.”
And there’s a deeper gift in rural communities, say the people who live there: the unique empathy that can grow from geographic proximity. Rural areas can appear homogenous on the surface, and yet be home to relationships across differences that are deeper than skin color.
In a city, Emergent Campus might have rapidly filled with tech startups; in rural Colorado, Rowland rented one space to a behavioral therapy practice, where kids work on practical, social, and emotional skills. “We love it so much. In the clinic, we have between 12 and 15 clients. Some come for a half day, some for a whole day,” said Benavidez. Hunter has been attending for two years, particularly modeling typical social interactions but in a more controlled safe environment.
Sarah Hinkley, whose company Barn Owl Drone Services is a tenant in Emergent, co-founded the company after getting a master’s from Colorado State. It’s raised $485,000, including from the Greater Colorado Venture Fund, to make drones that, among other things, spot male hemp plants that can ruin a crop. “I’ve always had a passion for innovating, and working for someone else limits that,” she said.
She and her husband moved from Colorado Springs to be in a rural environment. “He and I prefer small town living over traffic and angry people,” she said.
What she thinks of as the rural mindset – help your neighbor – made it easy for her to say yes to Rowland when he approached her with the idea of Hunter interning at Barn Owl; once she was convinced that he knew 3D printing, it became a no-brainer. “We want to keep it local, as much as we can,” she said.
Relationships that Unfurl Over a Lifetime
When Rowland was 14 – “a billion years ago”– he was the youngest person in his high school computer class, tapping away on an Atari 400. Trauma in his family, stuff it’s taken him years to work through, meant that Rowland dropped out. The years of his late teens were, to all intents and purposes, lost.
When he looks back, he realizes how important it was that he encountered the right people, in jobs and positions that empowered them to help. One of them was his high school counselor. He didn’t do anything more than what a good counselor does, meeting with Rowland regularly and asking what was happening. But he cared.
“His affirmation of me was pretty anchoring,” Rowland said. When he got married, his high school counselor flew out to attend the wedding.
Luck stepped in. When he was 22, he landed in a security alarm business. He could fix the computer that was always breaking, and someone who noticed offered him a job as a junior technician at a phone company, a job that grew into that of team leader and then manager – and from there, he made his way to Silicon Valley.
That day in the conference room with Hunter, Rowland was part of his new community. “I can’t imagine what it’s like being a special needs student,” he said. And then he realizes: “I guess I can imagine that because I lived through some of it.”
Hunter is excited about the role at Barn Owl, and thinks he can handle it: After all, the drone parts are simpler shapes than the figures he makes at home. On the day I talked to him, he mentioned connecting with the Barn Owl team in the Netherlands, and his days in the office at Emergent. “He’s a nice guy,” Hunter said of Rowland.
His mother is happy, too. “We see so much potential for him,” said Nancy Keohane, who worked for the Forest Service before retiring in Colorado. “Especially in a rural community, it’s a worry to find income.”
Rowland spends many hours a day talking to people who could help Emergent, from those in the local community – he still worries about being seen as the outsider – to influencers, people with money and, maybe most important, startups that want to base themselves in a rural location, or big tech companies that want a U.S.-based workforce.
A program with the local high school, funded with dollars Emergent won from the state, has begun to yield more students who intern at the campus for a stipend while they’re working their way through community colleges or online education programs.
Money to keep the Campus going is a big worry, but Rowland is thinking about whether he could use a cryptocurrency offering to help finance more marketing and restoration. Down the road, in Canon City, there’s a world-class Indian restaurant, where he takes visitors.
Just a few blocks away, the Arkansas River runs, drawing outdoor adventurers. Its class five rapids that seem an apt metaphor for the changemakers working in rural America today: The face many obstacles, but they’re riding an inevitable river of social change in an era where people are the rarest resource.
On the tour of the campus, one of the businessmen leaned forward to talk to Satterly as she led the tour of Emergent and talked about how to get more kids involved. “What do you need?” he asked. A little money, she replied, so she could spend one paid day a week, helping the high school kids with technology potential figure out how to get to the Campus for internships.