Federal stimulus funding brings new life to 11 public computing centers in Minnesota

University of Minnesota Broadband Access ProjectIn December 2009, it was announced that The University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (UROC) would be the recipient of $2,862,333 in federal funds while simultaneously contributing $741,000 of its own capital towards developing and improving 11 key computer labs (aka public computing centers or PCC’s) throughout under served neighborhoods in the Twin Cities as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

The grant was part of a nationwide $10.5b earmarked for communications, information, and security technologies.  At the time, it was Minnesota’s first award, the only one given to a university and the largest grant of its type – designed to address the digital divide in key geographic/socioeconomic areas through access and education.

As early as 2001, original research commissioned by the Ventura administration began to lay the basis for policy-level thought (and action) around an emerging  “gap between the technological haves and have-nots” throughout the state of Minnesota. Comprehensive in nature, the report also formed a working definition of the digital divide while simultaneously addressing causes, needs and solutions — beyond infrastructure.

‘Digital Divide typically refers to those who have access to a computer with Internet Service and those who do not. It also refers to the divide between those who have access and can effectively use new information and communication tools and those who cannot. The divide runs along social, geographical lines. Factor contributing to the gap are income and education levels, race and ethnicity, age, household type, geographical location, disabilities.’

While the original grant language proposed the creation of 11 new PCC’s – 4 in year one, 4 in year two and 3 the third and final year of the funding  – things are moving much faster than anticipated. In fact, at the current clip, all centers will be opened and/or upgraded two years ahead of the initial three year plan.

The first to open was  Centro in South Minneapolis; the most recent, Phyllis Wheatley Community Center in North Minneapolis, opened this week. All in all, 2 have already opened so far this year and 7  have been upgraded through the grant money.  Slated to open this fall are the  Hmong American Partnership and Patchwork Quilt sites.  A new website by media partner (and stimulus recipient alike) Minnesota Multicultural Media Consortium will provide full details of locations, hours and available training services — amongst a larger public awareness campaign on behalf of the respective PCC’s.

“Coupled with a demand that has exceeded our expectations and the tentative nature of federal funding, we’re striving to exceed the goals and demonstrate sustainable models within each of the communities,” says Cheryl Vanacora, Technical Curriculum Coordinator Broadband Access Project with the University of Minnesota.

When complete, the project aims to provide Internet access to an estimated 17,000 urban residents via 142 new workstations nestled throughout some of the Twin Cities most technically illiterate neighborhoods (St. Paul’s Frogtown and North/South Minneapolis), largely populated by low-income African Americans, Hmong, Latino, Somali immigrants, public housing residents and seniors. Beyond the terminals, a plan of action includes the appointment of four experienced “team leaders” who will outline best practices for each location in addition to the hiring and training of some 24 apprentices who will staff the centers day to day.

While the timeline is way ahead of schedule, the creation 36 new jobs while preserving 12 jobs (as outlined in the grant), is right on track according to Vanacora, who noted that  “…one of the most exciting experiences has been hiring and training the apprentices.  Even though we’re still essentially getting things up and running, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the availability and desire of new talent to help us execute on the educational aspects.”

New and open PCC’s funded through the grant include:

  • Project for Pride in Living (Northside Housing)
  • Glendale Townhomes Minneapolis Public Housing

Pre-existing and upgraded locations  include:

  • Asian Community Technology Center
  • Church of St. Phillip/Nellie Stone Johnson School
  • Lifetrack Resources
  • Phyllis Wheatley Community Center
  • Sabathani Community Center (proposed being open 80 hours/week through alternative/after hours.)
  • YWCA’s Youth Achiever Program in Frogtown, St. Paul.
  • Centro

Sheduled to open this fall:

  • Hmong American Partnership
  • Patchwork Quilt