Technology holds key to inner-city prosperity

Advances in technology make it possible today to connect inner-city residents to America's economic and social mainstream - using high-speed computer-linked networks and the information super highway. The multifamily housing industry can play a critical role in this re-integration as an optimal point of delivery for coordinating the provision of services, education, job opportunities and entrepreneurship.

Since World War II, the nation has tried everything from urban renewal to model cities to enterprise zones to stimulate inner-city development. In the process, we have learned that the greatest barriers to prosperity in underserved areas are the costs of creating and maintaining businesses there and the education and skill levels of many residents. Today, digital technology can enable private economic activity to flow cheaply and easily into and out of such areas. At the same time, software advances and "point and click" interfaces make education and workforce training far easier and more effective - even fun.

Thanks to the innovations of the telecommunications and computer industries, conventional urban development is about to be turned on its ear. We are fast moving to a world where providing access for an inner-city child to a universe of online opportunity will cost no more than a refrigerator. And, like refrigerators, high-speed online access will become a standard amenity in all residential housing.

We are so persuaded by the potential for electronic community development that we are forming a new company: e.villages. It will provide data management services to a wide range of clients, targeting the public sector and health care industries as well as local businesses. e.village employees will be part of a large, distributed workforce operating in or near residential housing in inner cities and other underserved communities. Special emphasis will be given to job training and life long learning with the help of multimedia software. Our business plan eventually calls for e.villages to grow to several thousand employees. The pilot e.villages site - at Edgewood Terrace in Washington, D.C. - has been operational since mid-1995.

e.villages is a commercial enterprise. But it is also an attitude rooted in four basic principles:

* Our people are our most important asset. The workforce in inner cities and underserved communities is a great national resource that offers a competitive advantage - provided public and private investment expedite the buildout of the information highway into these communities. A generation ago, the federal government brought opportunities to rural and urban communities by creating an interstate highway system that generated substantial private sector investment and activity. The trade routes of today's information age are the fiber optic and cable linkages that provide access to the worldwide electronic information highway. The federal government must take the lead in ensuring that the information highway is extended to every door, and that every citizen can learn to drive.

* The place to reach people is in their homes. Multifamily housing can be an excellent delivery mechanism for education, job training and entrepreneurship opportunities. Major technological breakthroughs in the computer, telecommunications, media and software industries are converging to enable low-cost, high-speed interactive multimedia computing over telephone lines. As wired communications become cheaper and more readily available, the relative value of an apartment as "physical" space to rent will decline, while the value of that same apartment will rise as a "point of sale" for hundreds of electronically delivered products and services.

* People's value is related to housing value. In the future, the per square foot value of real estate will increasingly equate to the value per hour of the people who live in that real estate. Increases in value created by services that save residents time or increase their per hour productivity can have a direct impact on real estate values.

* Investment in "high yield" neighborhoods will produce wealth. Investment in inner-city neighborhoods will be one of the premiere investment opportunities of the next decade. As productivity rates increase in the service and manufacturing sectors and Corporate America continues to re-engineer, capacity will be freed up for the private sector to take on additional operational responsibilities. These will include opportunities resulting from long-term privitization of government functions, among them the redevelopment of many urban communities.

Last year, Adelson Entertainment and Hamilton Securities funded the creation of a center in the Edgewood complex equipped with computers, high-speed modems and links to the Internet. An initial group of Edgewood residents, many of whom were previously unemployed or underemployed, received intensive training in data management, word processing, general office services and business development practices. The first graduating class formed Edgewood Technology Services (ETS) in September 1995 to supply data servicing support to Hamilton. By mid-1996, ETS was breaking even as a business and had begun marketing services to other potential customers. A second training class had graduated and was phasing to full-time employee status.

ETS workers have found the proximity to home to be beneficial. One ETS employee had been reluctant to enroll in conventional job training programs because of the distance from her home. She now sees her seven-year-old son off to school, takes her two- and four-year-old daughters to her neighbor and rides the elevator to her job. Her son's asthma is less cause for concern now because her work allows her to remain in close proximity to his school. Because she does not have to travel, she completed her training on time and handles her job at ETS comfortable in the knowledge that she is close to her family.

ETS has been welcomed by the community. The skepticism that greeted the participants in the first training course has been replaced with admiration. Other Edgewood residents are eager to apply to be part of the job training program.

The potential of such enterprises has attracted the attention and support of policymakers. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, is encouraging local development of pilot sites in neighborhoods with heavy concentrations of public and federally assisted housing, where the taxpayers' investment is at risk. These so-called "Neighborhood Networks" will be built gradually, with lots of community input. The projects will typically start with learning centers in the apartment complexes, where children and adults come to learn to use computers and to improve their education and job skills. If these efforts are successful, a compelling case can be made for ultimately networking individual units and linking buildings with institutions in the community, including schools, libraries and local businesses.

e.villages plans to offer its initial product line for sale later this year. The first products will include "Training Center In A Box," a package providing the materials, instruction and software necessary for establishing training centers in residential housing and community buildings.

Four basic principles

of e.villages

* Our people are our most important asset. * The place to reach people is in their homes. * People's value is related to housing value. * Investment in "high yield" neighborhoods will produce wealth.

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