U.S. Sen Capito Visits Parkersburg Businesses

PARKERSBURG — U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and a group representing major Internet companies visited four downtown businesses Thursday to highlight the way they’re taking advantage of online opportunities and the need for expanded access to broadband.

“Just the magnitude of opportunity is really stunning,” Capito, R-W.Va., said at the Parkersburg Brewing Company, the final stop on the morning’s “small business crawl.” “It’s vital. It’s a tool. It’s almost like having electricity and water and other things you used to look at” when starting a business.

Gina Woodworth, senior vice president of public policy and government affairs for the Internet Association, said the owners of the Brewing Company, which opened to great fanfare a month ago, had used social media to develop interest in their venture.

“We started trying to build a social media following when we started doing the business planning” about two years ago, said Dan Curtis, co-owner of the business. They announced their opening date on Facebook.

“Within less than 24 hours, it had reached 55,000 people,” he said.

Capito and Woodworth were joined by local development officials, elected officials and Angela Hooks, public policy associate for Yelp, one of the companies represented by the associations.

The group started off at The Coffee Bar at 404 Market St. where Capito and Woodworth spoke with owner Zak Huffman about how his business utilizes the Internet and social media to advertise their products, feature local artists and musical events.

“Facebook for us is going to have the largest demographic. It seems like that’s what everyone’s the most comfortable with here,” Huffman said. “An event will flop unless you’re really pushing it online.”

Social media is also how he communicates with customers most frequently.

“The phone doesn’t ring as much as you would think,” Huffman said.

Next up was a ribbon-cutting for Netranom, a Hurricane-based company that opened an office in Parkersburg in September. Owner Scott Edwards said Parkersburg’s status as a 1-Gig city — after Suddenlink Communications upgraded the area’s bandwidth speed last year — made it stand out from locations the company was considering.

“Other people in the state are jealous of Parkersburg,” Edwards said.

Netranom provides Internet, phone system and security services throughout the state, and Edwards said the lack of fast, reliable Internet is a problem in many areas.

“Our first discussion meeting we have with these businesses, the first complaint is unreliable Internet,” Edwards said. “Some people think it’s (broadband) just for large businesses, but it’s not. It’s for the one person selling candles to everyone in between.”

The group also visited the Schrader Youth Ballet Company, where executive director Erin Augenstein discussed the use of social media and the Internet to promote events and keep in touch with alumni who continue to support the company. Just recently, she said, she sent out a targeted Facebook ad for the Dec. 16 “Nutcracker” performance for schools at the Smoot Theatre.

“By Monday, I had 100 people booked for the school shows,” Augenstein said.

Capito said she formed the Senate’s Rural Broadband Caucus with a bipartisan group of legislators from other states with large rural areas lacking the needed bandwidth to benefit not only businesses but health care, education and more.

“We’re trying to free up other federal dollars to help with private dollars to drive this,” Capito said.

Some federal money previously used to expand access to telephone service has been repurposed for Internet access, and the senator said she hopes to make more funds available, as well as work with companies to encourage them to expand access.

Wood County Commissioner Blair Couch said it can be expensive for companies to extend broadband service into the rural areas where it’s needed, which is why federal dollars are needed to make it more feasible.

“Wood County has its pockets” of under-served areas, he said. “But the control of a county is non-existent. We can’t tell an Internet provider to extend.”

Capito said she wants to see unserved and under-served areas addressed before money is used to upgrade speeds in served locations.

By:  Evan Bevins
Source: Parkersburg News & Sentinel