Making it Work on the Shore: Reinventing Downtown Easton with Ross Benincasa

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In years past, the role of a director of a downtown association would consist of managing and promoting a series of special events created to encourage retail shopping. Special days like “First Friday” and free concert programs have become the standard practice to bring residents and their families to their downtown districts, but is that enough in a country that soon can expect same day delivery from internet sellers?

The answer coming from Ross Benincasa, the Easton Business Alliance’s director, is a definite “no.” While special events remain important strategies, the work of promoting downtown shopping has become increasingly more sophisticated as Ross notes in his first Spy interview.

Specifically, Benincasa, the EBA Board, and Easton’s Town Council are now looking such things as downtown “walkability” improvements and studying pedestrian navigation patterns to significantly improve the experience of shopping. In fact, through Ross’ initiation, the town was the recent recipient of a $145,000 grant from Google to implement its new store view program, allowing app users to peek inside stores, restaurants, and public institutions like libraries and museums, before actually stepping into those venues. The grant also provides Easton a generous advertising budget to go into Washington and Baltimore media markets with its message.

The Spy caught up with Ross at the Bullitt House, where the Easton Business Alliance has their offices, to talk about the future of downtown Easton, its current challenges, and a very encouraging forecast that Easton is well positioned to adjust to this changing climate and maintain its position as one of the Eastern Shore’s most popular shopping hubs.

This video is approximately eight minutes in length. For more information about the Easton Business Alliance please go here.

 

Learn to Build Fine Furniture with Robert Ortiz

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Robert Ortiz has established himself as one of Chestertown’s most admired entrepreneurs, creating fine furniture that blends Japanese and Shaker traditions into something contemporary and distinctive. His two lines of furniture — named for his children, Daniel and Sofia — combine simple shapes and combinations of different woods.

A furniture maker for 30 years, Ortiz has had his studio in at 207 C S. Cross Street in Chestertown for the past 20 years. In addition to its primary function as a woodworking shop, it occasionally hosts concerts by the Pam Ortiz band, in which he accompanies his wife on percussion, guitar, and vocals. It has also doubled as “Olivander’s Wand Shop” during Chestertown’s Harry Potter Festivals.

Recently, Ortiz has launched onto a new aspect of his craft – passing along his knowledge and methods to others. Here’s what he told the Chestertown Spy about his new project in a recent interview.

Bob Ortiz with a table like those he shows his students how to build

“Since 2008 when the financial crisis happened, most people who have small businesses — if they’re not still recovering — are trying to figure out how to move into the future. . I spent about eight years trying to figure out how to survive in the furniture business, because like many small industries it’s completely different than it was prior to 2008.

I think of 30 years of making furniture as two generations.

“The first generation of people I made furniture for, they’re retiring, downsizing, moving into assisted living, in some cases passing on. I asked those folks, what are they doing with their artwork and their furniture, with their silver, china, and most of them tell me they’re taking it to second-hand stores. Their children don’t want it, their grandchildren don’t want it. The generation that’s replacing that older cohort are in a very different place than my parents or my grandparents were. They’re starting families much later; they’re moving through different careers, different jobs every year, so that stability isn’t there. They’re living with a lot more debt.

“So over the years, I’ve been asking myself, what’s the strategy here? Who wants furniture; who needs furniture? And the more I listened to people and read articles, I realized that there are two things going on. One thing is, that the generation that is just about starting to retire or recently retired they no longer want to buy art or craft: they want to make it. The other interesting thing is that their children and grandchildren are not buying hand-crafted furniture. So about a year and a half ago I came up with this idea that I call the Chestertown vacation workshops.

“Basically, it’s this: come and spend a week with me. It’s one on one, it’s not a group thing. Immerse yourself in the making of a beautiful object that’s useful. I’ve been making this line of furniture now for 20 years, and so my comfort with it, my ability to pass along what I’ve learned in those 20 years, is part of what the workshop’s about.

“I try to be real clear; this is not about starting a woodworking school. If you’re coming to one of my workshops, it’s about come, spend a week, we’ll go from soup to nuts. Picking out the wood, making the pieces, designing them, putting them together, and at the end of the week you get to take it home.”

Part of the Robert Ortiz Studio

Who are the workshops aimed at? Ortiz said, “I’ve had people with a little bit of woodworking experience, people with no woodworking experience. I’ve had men and women who spent their career behind a desk, who finally want to get out from behind that desk and make something. I’ve had several women who weren’t allowed to take shop in high school who finally said, you know, I’m going to make myself something.”

The Spy asked, “What kinds of skills are they going to need for the workshop?”

Workshop participant and project.

Ortiz said, “To a certain extent, when you come here, I don’t care if you’ve been a CEO, I don’t care if you’ve been a lowly worker – everybody is a private here, except for myself. The most important thing is for people to be willing and able to concentrate and to follow directions. The one skill that is really helpful is that you’re a problem solver. If you’re a good problem solver, it goes quickly. If not, we have to spend a little more time making sure that when it’s time to make a cut or put something together, that you’re able to do it right.

“Somebody who doesn’t have a lot of experience, or who has no experience, may wind up saying to themselves, well, gee, how am I going to take that workshop? Well, what I tell people is, you know all those people who are climbing up Mount Everest with a guide?  Most of those people – they’re not mountain climbers. They’re people who pay a lot of money to have somebody shepherd them up the mountain, hopefully they make it, hopefully they come back down the mountain and have a wonderful experience to talk about. Well, in my case, I’m shepherding you through the process of making a piece of furniture. My job actually ends up being to make all the test pieces to give the student the confidence that they’ll be able to make the cut.”

Ortiz takes a good bit of pride in the quality of work his students are able to produce. He said, “Back in October I had an alumni weekend. I invited everyone who had taken a workshop to come and bring their piece of furniture and have it out on the floor. It was during the studio tour that happens in Kent County, because I wanted other people to see what participants had made, and the quality of what people were able to achieve. On my website, I have lots of photos of things that people have made, and you’d be pretty amazed. And I had a CEO last week who told me his doctor told him he needed to find something to do as a hobby. So he hadn’t taken wood shop since high school. I was pretty amazed. He didn’t answer his phone once during the course of the week. So I think the most important thing is to leave your daily routine behind you and be able to immerse yourself in the craft and in all the nuances and all the focus that it takes in order to make something with your hands and make it beautiful.

Alec Dick of Chestertown making a table in an Ortiz workshop

“The process – most of these pieces take about five days. And in those five days, my hope is that people are willing to come into my world, see how I spend my day. And my day involves focusing on the work that I’m doing, focusing on the details, and trying to get my students, the folks who are taking my workshops, to focus on those details just as much as myself, so that at the end of the week they take home this piece that’s as good as, or nearly as good as, something that I’ve made.

“I mentioned earlier that older people are giving their furniture, their silver, their china to second-hand and thrift stores. The kids don’t want the furniture that their grandparents or parents bought. What he said took me by surprise and it opened up a door that I just wasn’t thinking was there. He told me he brought home the first piece of furniture that he made from the workshop, and in the course of a couple of weeks, his three sons came to visit. And each of them said to him, “I want that when you die.” So it became clear to him, ‘Well, OK, I need to make three pieces of furniture, one for each.’

“But what’s interesting to me is, now we’re talking about a heirloom that’s going to stay in the family, hopefully for several generations.”

Workshop participants and project.

Ortiz knows what that means. Among all the fine pieces in his shop, he showed the table his computer sits on. “That’s a table that my father made when we lived in a little apartment in Greenwich Village when I was a kid. My father had no workshop – he was a factory worker, he was a metal worker.  But that was a formica and metal table that he made. It’s always something that I’ve kept close by. And I guess to a certain extent the workshops are just a continuation of that. So – that’s what the workshops are about. The workshops are about legacy; the workshops are about coming and having fun; the workshops are about something, take it home, get to say every day, ‘I made that.’

The other thing that folks should know, I’m also willing to entertain other people’s designs. It sometimes costs a little more because I’ve got to figure out how we’re going to make them within the time frame.”

For more information about the workshops, and about Ortiz’s furniture, visit his website.

Furniture from the Daniel and Sophia furniture lines, made by Bob Ortiz in his Chestertown Studio:

   

   

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nearly 200 Stakeholders Discuss Internet Access Equity at Regional Rural Broadband Forum

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When nearly 200 business leaders, economic development professionals and state and local government officials came together to discuss bringing affordable, high-speed internet service to rural Maryland, the “why” was not up for debate. However, when it came to “how” the options were numerous and the financing was challenging to say the least.

Josh Hastings, RMC chair, addresses the attendees at the recent Regional Rural Broadband Forum. Photo credit: Harry Bosk.

Hosted by event partners the Rural Maryland Council and USDA Rural Development, the program titled the Regional Rural Broadband Forum was presented recently in Annapolis. The forum unofficially launched the work of a special task force enacted by Maryland’s General Assembly, which was signed into law on May 25.

Charlotte Davis, executive director of the Rural Maryland Council, chairs the Task Force on Rural Internet, Broadband, Wireless and Cellular Service. Over the next several months, Davis and her colleagues will research redundancies and gaps in service and funding options needed to bring digital equity to rural Maryland. By November the task force will report its findings and recommendations to Governor Hogan.

The program included six sessions providing attendees with information ranging from the different broadband technologies commonly used in rural communities to best practices used in New York’s “Broadband for All” initiative.

The day’s discussions often came back to how to create sustainable high-speed broadband access in areas with low population density. “Admittedly for a business whose mission is to turn a profit providing high speed internet in rural areas is a recipe for market failure,” said Davis. “Clearly the solution will be providing incentives and grants to make the project more doable and attractive,” she added.

Attendees at a group session at the recent Regional Rural Broadband Forum, hosted by event partners the Rural Maryland Council (RMC) and USDA Rural Development (RD). The forum included six sessions providing attendees with information ranging from the different broadband technologies commonly used in rural communities to best practices used in New York’s “Broadband for All” initiative.

The tone of the forum remained optimistic despite the acknowledgement that there will be no easy solutions. “We cannot have an equal society without equal access to broadband,” said RMC chair Josh Hastings.

Chiming in on that note was Maryland State Senator Adelaide C. Eckardt. “It is all about getting connected and for us (in rural areas) it is the art of the possible. It all works better when we work together,” she said.

Founded in 1994, the Rural Maryland Council serves as the state’s federally designated rural development council and functions as a voice for rural Maryland, advocating for and helping rural communities and businesses across the state to flourish and to gain equity to its suburban and urban counterparts. To learn more call (410) 841-5774, email rmc.mda@maryland.gov or connect with the Rural Maryland Council at facebook.com/RuralMaryland or on Twitter @RuralMaryland.

USDA Rural Development is committed to improving the economy and quality of life in rural America. RD provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; homeownership; community services such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit the USDA website,

For more information on the Regional Rural Broadband Forum, call (410) 841-5774 or visit their website.

 

Maryland 3.0: Making Eastern Shore Towns “Cool”

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Salisbury Mayor Jake Day, 34, has a floor-to-ceiling erasable board dotted with Post-it notes on the longest wall of his office.

Salisbury Mayor Jake Day

It’s a jarring display of terrestrial organization for a millennial, but Day is hardly old school. He’s got two masters degrees, one from Carnegie Mellon in urban design and the other from Oxford in environmental policy. He is also an officer in the Maryland National Guard and a local boy whose father was recently named COO of Perdue Farms.

“There were moments when, as a 9-year-old living in Salisbury, I was thinking I really want to be mayor in this town,” said Day.

So he’s had plenty of time to think about how he’d change things in a city with a history of helter-skelter development and a stubborn crime rate.

“The biggest thing for us has been arts, entertainment and culture,” Day explained. “Recognizing that those things can be more than an ancillary benefit, but a driver has been big for us.”

Day is staring down a core problem in rural Maryland: People are dying faster than they’re being replaced, and where they’re not the numbers are trending that way. So retaining residents and attracting new ones is vital. Because creating jobs, enticing new industries and rebuilding infrastructure matters little if there’s no one around to fill those jobs, drive on those new roads or enjoy those renovated downtowns.

And cities like Salisbury, Frederick and Cumberland — small urban anchors in Maryland’s rural areas — could be where the revitalization begins.

Or where it’s already underway.

A matter of life and death

Garrett, Allegany, Kent, Talbot, Dorchester, Somerset and Worcester counties all had more deaths than births in 2015, according Maryland’s Vital Statistics Report. Leading the way on the Eastern Shore was Kent, which had a third fewer births than deaths. In Western Maryland it was Allegany, where the disparity was 27 percent.

In Wicomico County, where Salisbury is located, the numbers are rosier. In 2015, births beat deaths by 36 percent. However, in 2010 that number was 50 percent. The same trend is there for Frederick County, where births outpaced death two to one in 2010, but slowed to five for every three in 2015.

Population problems in rural areas tend to get framed in economic terms. The argument goes that young people won’t stay if there are no jobs, but the jobs won’t come if there are no young people to fill them. But the jobs are there.

According to Maryland’s Workforce Exchange, there were more than 600 open job listings in Wicomico County, the majority of which were in Salisbury. The numbers are similar in Frederick and Allegany, with more than 500 open job listings in both counties as of late April.

“The problem is that we’re just not adding people at the same rate that we’re adding jobs,” Day said.

Part of the challenge includes boosting the quality, pay and benefits of available jobs. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there has been a pronounced economic shift in Salisbury over the last 10 years from producing things to delivering services — and with it, more jobs that tend to pay less and come with fewer benefits.

In order to sell employment that might not stack up salary-wise to urban areas, mayors like Day and Randy McClement in the city of Frederick are increasingly turning to what they can offer instead: quality of life.

“The thing we’ve been able to do is make Frederick a destination,” said McClement, who’s been mayor there since 2009. “We’ve done that with a hip feel. Millennials are looking for a livable, walkable city. By delivering that, we’re attracting the younger generation.”

The city of Frederick, basically the model for small to mid-size urban redevelopment in Maryland, has the luxury of being perched at the top of I-270 corridor, in commuting distance to job-rich Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County. Salisbury is more remote, and the people who live near it more reliant on its services.

When asked what Salisbury’s 33,000-odd residents needs most, Day points first to an intangible.

“The thing we struggle to overcome more than anything else is a change to our community self-esteem,” he said. “We look to ourselves in a poorer light than any metric would suggest that we should.”

Day is referring in part to Salisbury’s crime problem. According to the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, the city’s violent crime rate per 100,000 people in 2015 was almost double the state average, though it has fallen in recent years.

“We’ve had some dark times and those things linger,” said Day. “It’s easy to latch onto them as your identity and it’s a lot tougher to get people to believe that things aren’t so bad.”

Downtown Salisbury

To help put the past behind, Day wants to remake pretty much the entire city. And, thanks to a partnership he initiated between Salisbury and the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning, he has a blueprint to do it.

It focuses on the city’s urban core, dividing it into seven neighborhoods, and includes everything from streetscape redesign to newly constructed modern buildings and bridges along the city’s riverwalk on either side of the Wicomico River, which snakes west to east through Salisbury’s center.

Day is hyperfocused on the city’s physical appearance, particularly its branding and signage, but also its benches, planters and trash cans, which are not uniform at present and clearly bother the mayor’s design sense.

Salisbury’s master plan has a proposed price tag of about $640 million over 20 years, nearly 75 percent of which is meant to come from private sector investment. The plan is aggressive and maybe unrealistic, but also visionary. And perhaps no surprise from a mayor with an undergraduate degree in architecture and a masters in urban planning.

Day is also pursuing smaller, less costly efforts at rebranding Salisbury, including being a finalist to host the National Folk Festival for three years, a 175,000-person event that takes place over a long fall weekend each year. Prior hosts include Nashville and Richmond, with Greensboro, N.C., as the event’s current location.

Finally, one of the simpler efforts Day and his team are doing is something called 3rd Fridays, where the city organizes arts and crafts vendors and live music in the city’s historic quarter.

“We had to focus on our own market first so we stopped worrying about the beaches and Baltimore and Washington for a minute and tried to figure out how to get local people to show up,” Day said.

Initial funding for 3rd Fridays the first year was around $20,000. In 2016, it was $280,000.

Given the size and scope of his efforts, it’s fair to question Day’s ability to keep all of them on track, including management of Salisbury’s 435 city employees.

But Day is a believer in using data to make decisions and runs his weekly management meetings like a military battle briefing. Each of his department heads have between four and six key metrics that they measure and then provide updates on on a weekly basis. These include things like potholes filled and lane miles paved and travel time on fire department calls.

“We’re measuring constantly and we’re making decisions based on that,” said Day, his enthusiasm growing as he drills down on yet another topic. “The weakness is the linkage to mapping. We need to reinvent our use of GIS (geographic information systems).”

Something Day will probably incorporate into his briefings soon.

by J.F. Meils

Emil Andrusko of Benchworks Named One of the 2017 ” PM360 ELITE 100″

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Andrusko, Sr., Vice President of Pharmaceutical Strategy at Benchworks in Chestertown, MD

PM360, the premier magazine and information resource for marketing decision makers in the pharmaceutical and medical device sectors, has named Emil Andrusko, Sr. Vice President of Pharmaceutical Strategy at  Benchworks, as one of the  2017 PM360 ELITE 100 in the Mentor category. Now in its third year, the PM360 ELITE (Exceptional • Leaders • Innovators • Transformers • Entrepreneurs) represent the most influential people in the healthcare industry today.

Emil joined Benchworks in 2014. He is primarily responsible for market development within the biopharmaceutical market, as well as strategic planning and direction for a variety of existing clients. Emil has 30 years of sales and marketing experience in the pharmaceutical industry with Wyeth and Pfizer. He has held numerous executive sales and marketing leadership positions in numerous therapeutic categories and has a track record of innovation and driving growth for brands.

Emil commented on the award saying, “I am extremely humbled by this recognition. It is truly an honor to be recognized for being a mentor as this is a passion of mine. I have taken the time to mentor many colleagues during my career and believe it is important to help them attain their professional goals.”

The PM360 ELITE Awards were established in 2015 to recognize individuals who have made a significant impact on the healthcare industry throughout their careers. More than 500 submissions were received and nominees were evaluated based on their accomplishments; testimonials from their bosses, clients, and colleagues; and supporting evidence that reflects the impact of their efforts. A total of 100 winners were selected across 18 categories, including Creative Directors, Data Miners, Digital Crusaders, Disrupters, Drug Researchers and Developers, Entrepreneurs, Launch Experts, Leaders of the Future, Marketing Teams, Master Educators, Mentors, Patient Advocates, PR Gurus, Sales MVPs, Strategists, Talent Acquisition Leaders, Tech-know Geeks, and Transformational Leaders.

“Each of the 2017 PM360 ELITE 100 demonstrated immense talent in their ability to impact our industry,” says Anna Stashower, CEO and Publisher of PM360. “These people represent the best the industry has to offer, including veterans who have made their mark over and over and up-and-comers who are just getting started.”

Emil Andrusko and the rest of the winners will be honored at a celebratory event on July 11th in New York City at the rooftop bar 230 FIFTH. Tickets are available for purchase at the PM360 website.   

About PM360

PM360 is the premier, must-read magazine for marketing decision makers in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device industries. Published monthly, PM360 is the only journal that focuses on delivering the full spectrum of practical information necessary for product managers and pharmaceutical marketing professionals to succeed in the complex and highly regulated healthcare environment.

The journal’s targeted and insightful editorial focuses on issues that directly impact critical decision making, including planning and implementation of cutting edge strategies, trends, the latest technological advances, branding/marketing, advertising/promotion, patient/professional education, sales, market research, PR, and leadership. Additionally, the “360” in the title signifies the span of this critical, how-to info with personal and career insights for an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

By providing the full circle of enriching content, PM360 is truly an indispensable tool for busy and productive marketing professionals to stay at the top of their game.

About Benchworks

Benchworks, a comprehensive marketing services agency headquartered in Chestertown, Maryland, was founded in 1991. With offices in Philadelphia and Boston, the company specializes in the design, production, and launch of complete marketing and branding services. Clients include a wide variety of companies in the life science, pharmaceutical, beverage, manufacturing, and education industries in North America and Europe. For additional information, visit “Benchworks or call 800-536-4670.

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It’s the Last Picture Show at Chester 5 Theatres

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The Chester 5 Theatres movie complex is closing.

The Chester 5 Theatres at Washington Square shopping center in Chestertown closed after the final showing Sunday, June 4.

The last show was Sunday night, June 4, according to an email to the Spy from a movie-goer who learned of the closing while at the theater. The films on display the final weekend were “Captain Underpants,” “Wonder Woman,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Baywatch” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Manager Charlene Fowler, who has been at the theater 18 years, confirmed the closing in a phone call Monday morning. She said business has “dropped off” over the last five years, and the theater was no longer able to turn a profit.

Asked what factors contributed to the downturn in business, Fowler said, “Middletown kind of hurt us.” She said the Westown Movies in Middletown has “more up-to-date” facilities, including slanted seating that gives a clear view of the screen from all seats. Also, she said, the Middletown theater has alcohol sales, which Chester 5 could not compete with. She also cited the presence of restaurants and shopping facilities in Middletown as factors that drew possible viewers away from Chestertown.

“We had our regulars, but we didn’t draw from a very big crowd,” Fowler said. The comparatively small population of Kent County, along with a small number of the younger families who are typically the audience film makers aim their product toward, undoubtedly had an effect on the theater’s ability to draw. With Washington College between sessions, the timing of the closure is not surprising, either.

Alexander, the movie-goer who told the Spy of the closing, said he and his wife were planning to attend the movies on Monday, because they enjoyed the free popcorn that was the theater’s promotion. But checking the website, they saw movie times listed only through Sunday. They decided to go on Saturday. While picking up their tickets, he joked with Fowler that the theater must be closing. She told him she had a meeting with the owners the next morning. Hearing that, the couple decided to return Sunday to see another film they were interested in. After that film, Fowler told them the theater was closing. She said the mall owner was not interested in bringing in another theater to replace it.

Posters for two of the movies shown on the final weekend.

Chester 5 Theatres were a division of P&G Theaters, which also owns the Essex 5 Theatres in Tappahannock, Va. There was no answer to a call to the number listed for the theater manager, but the recorded message listed showings through Thursday, with features much the same as at the Chester 5 Theaters.

Fowler said she had seen declining sales at the theater since its conversion to digital technology about five years ago. She said she wasn’t sure whether options such as Netflix and cable TV movie channels were a factor in the drop in attendance.

With the closing of the Chester 5 Theatres, the Westown Theater in Middletown is the closest movie venue to Chestertown, with theaters in Dover, Easton and Annapolis slightly farther away.

Gigabit County: The Future of Broadband and Its Implications for Kent County

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When Scott Boone, the IT Director for Kent County, speaks at events or attends meetings outside Kent County, he hands out plastic cards that say “Our Gigabit County is Open for Business!” on one side and on the other side show a map of the fiber loops that crisscross the county. The cards also contain a flash drive loaded with detailed information on how to start a business in the county.

Lately, he is giving out lots of these cards, because national organizations and many other rural counties want to know: How did Kent attract the money and the technical talent for a project that seems likely to make Kent the first rural county to provide very high speed internet access—up to a gigabit (1000 megabits) per second—to virtually every home, every school, and every business? How did it happen that Kent County, a relatively small place with less than 20,000 inhabitants, is now served by optical fiber backbones from four different providers—two of which are providing fiber to the home or business. In addition, Kent County is served by four wireless internet service providers that also offer high speed broadband connections for home or business. Few urban areas in the country and virtually no other rural counties have such a wealth of choice—of providers, speeds, and prices.

One answer is strong and sustained political support from the County Commissioners. William Pickrum was instrumental in attracting the county’s first wireless internet service provider back in 2004 and has remained an advocate for broadband services. Ronald Fithian suggested that the county enter the broadband project in a competition that resulted in an award from the Maryland Association of Counties. William A. Short has been active in overseeing the fiber buildout. Equally important, the county’s frugal practices over many years meant that it could afford the project’s $4.5 million cost without raising taxes. In addition, the county has licensed 3 wireless internet providers to place their equipment on county water towers rent free, if they also provide discounted service to certain low-income families with school-age children.

Another answer is vision. Scott Boone and County Administrator Shelley Heller designed the Request for Proposals that launched the project in a way that encouraged ambitious proposals. They and Jamie Williams, the county’s economic development director, believed that better access to broadband was critical for the future of education and healthcare in Kent County as well as for attracting new businesses and creating new jobs. Boone also reserved www.gigcounty.com and other on-line addresses and has designed an ambitious program to market the county’s new digital infrastructure.

A third answer is good timing. FTS Fiber, the winning bidder to the RFP, was planning to build a fiber ring with hundreds of individual optical fibers to connect a major internet exchange point in Ashburn, Virginia to a new undersea fiber link in Virgina Beach. The undersea link and the fiber ring serve clients who are very major users of the internet and wanted an additional route for internet traffic to and from Europe that did not go through New York City. FTS originally planned to build the eastern half of the ring down the Delmarva Peninsula by crossing the Chesapeake Bay below the Bay Bridge, but realized they could cross to Rock Hall and run the fiber through Kent County and the upper Eastern Shore just as well. (It didn’t hurt that Brett Hill, CEO of FTS, has a home on the Eastern Shore and so had a personal interest in bringing better connectivity to the region.) So FTS proposed to re-route its fiber ring and and to install an additional 110 miles of fiber in Kent County connecting 54 county government facilities, as well as to lay fiber to every home and business that requested it.

FTS brought in a retail partner, ThinkBig Networks, to lease the fibers, install customer equipment (optical fiber “routers” that provide in-home or in-office WiFi networks), and provide gigabit internet service. Under the contract, the county pays FTS $4.5 million for connecting its facilities (but in return will get 10 years of free service, dramatically lowering its internet and telecommunications costs). The county will also receive a portion of the fiber lease rentals from ThinkBig or other entities (including other internet service providers) that lease the fiber network.

Gigabit internet (1000 megabits per second) is unbelievably fast in today’s terms. You can download a whole season of your favorite Netflix or Amazon series in a few minutes. That kind of speed is ideal, perhaps even necessary, for what’s coming—streaming video for sports, news, and everything else, still higher definition TV sets that display 8 times as many pixels, virtual reality “tours” of popular destinations or imagined worlds. The global economy is increasingly being shaped by internet platform or cloud-based companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook that don’t make things but rather connect buyers and sellers, or connect people to information, or to each other. Soon banking and other financial services will be delivered the same way—through new and more secure internet platforms called blockchains—and a wide range of healthcare services will also be delivered on-line or by connecting smart, in-home devices to cloud-based algorithms and artificial intelligence diagnostic tools. Education, including Kent County Public Schools, is already moving to individualized, digital learning platforms for which students need to have internet access at home as well as in school.

So Kent County is likely to be uniquely prepared for this sea change in the way we live, learn, and work—if its citizens and businesses take full advantage of the gigabit infrastructure. And that should be easy, because the FTS fiber has stimulated other internet service providers to up their game as well. Atlantic Broadband has rushed to lay fiber to the home in several Kent County neighborhoods, trying to lock up customers before FTS gets there. The company now offers slower speeds (up to 120 megabits), but says that it is already offering gigabit service over its fiber in one town in Connecticut, and expects to eventually offer that level of service on the Eastern Shore as well. Verizon has fiber here as well, although it has yet shown no interest in providing fiber to the home. So does the Maryland Broadband Coalition, which only serves member entities such as Washington College.

There are also four wireless internet service providers active in the county—Bridgemaxx, Delmarva WiFi, Tidewater WiFi, and a new, well-financed entry, Cambio WiFi. They operate from towers—both county towers and commercial structures and even some grain elevators—and typically offer substantially slower speeds, 5 to 25 megabits. However, three of the wireless providers say they can offer customers as much as 100 megabits. (See the Service Providers below for listed speeds and prices.) Wireless links from a tower to a home or business usually can’t be longer than 5-7 miles and work best when there is line of sight (eg, no trees or buildings in the way), but newer technology has improved the ability to penetrate trees and to limit interference. (See theTechnology Primer below.) For customers that think they don’t yet need or can’t afford fiber speeds, wireless connections may be of interest.

There is still another possible tier of service, access over a shared WiFi hotspot. The county could provide such hotspots or license an internet service provider to do so for neighborhoods around each of the 50+ facilities where it has a fiber link: eight school buildings, 11 fire, police, or other public safety facilities, several libraries, municipal office buildings, and more than 20 public works, water treatment facilities, or similar locations. Similar hotspots could be set up around churches or community centers—indeed several churches in Kent County are already doing just that through a program of the Kent County Learning Center aimed at helping students. Hot Spot access could be subsidized (free) or by subscription.

In fact, just such a hotspot or wireless cloud is being planned on a larger scale to resolve the lack of mobile phone or internet coverage in Chestertown—via a partnership between the town, the county, Washington College, and FTS. The hotspot would cover the marina/waterfront area, the downtown business district at least up to Washington College, the entire college campus, and possibly other areas such as the proposed new KRM business park. The hotspot—similar to those found in sports stadiums or modern airports—would use advanced distributed antennas, each backed by fiber, and would provide not only WiFi access but also likely mobile phone connectivity for carriers that decide to participate (negotiations are underway). That means phones would reliably work either over the carrier network or over WiFi and that laptops and tablets would also work everywhere outside in the hotspot and likely in storefronts or restaurants as well. The distributed antennae network would have the capacity to serve large numbers of people—e.g., Tea Party Festival crowds. Of course, hot spots are typically not as secure as unshared internet connections—not the best place to do your internet banking, for example—so businesses and most homes will want their own fiber or wireless link. Nonetheless the hotspot will make Chestertown more connected than many major urban locations.

Just in time for Memorial Day, Cambio Wifi has created a junior version of the WiFi hotspot—centered on Fountain Park—with an antenna on the roof of The Finishing Touch. It’s modest in speed and capacity, up to 5 megabits, but its free, serves a pressing need, and is indicative of the entrepreneurial energy that the  Gigabit County project has unleased.

Implications

It seems obvious that high speed fiber, wireless, and mobile links will improve lifestyles—for residents and visitors. It will also improve the business environment. In one well-documented case, Chattanooga, Tennessee, experienced an economic boom after making fiber and internet access widely available and affordable. It became known as a start-up city, attracted many new businesses and experienced an in-migration of new residents, especially young people. Could Chestertown, and Kent County as a whole, experience a similar renaissance? In a way, it’s already happening. The proposed KRM business park, which will retain at least 300 Dixon Valve jobs for the area in a new headquarters complex and likely create that many more jobs from new businesses, would probably not have happened without the optical fiber network, according to KRM officials.

Moreover, the availability of the FTS fiber loop in the county already has some companies exploring the possibility of creating an internet data center—a server warehouse with thousands of data storage computers hosting cloud-based services—in the Millington Industrial zone. Sitting atop hundreds of optical fibers and close to an undersea link, as well as proximity to several major airports and the Rt. 301 highway, might in fact prove attractive to quite a few internet-dependent businesses. And these are precisely the kind of next-generation, low-impact business that would fit well in Kent County and bring highly-skilled talent to live here, as well as creating jobs for the increasingly tech-savvy students graduating from Kent County schools.

Universal connectivity would benefit many others as well. Consider the artisan/artist community in the county, and suppose that Gallery shows, First Friday events, and the annual studio tour happened on-line as well—on a YouTube channel, for example, and on Facebook, with links to artists’ websites. That way people in Washington, Baltimore, or Philadelphia could also participate virtually and strengthen their link to the county—and artists might sell more of their work.

Libraries in Kent County as elsewhere are becoming digital repositories. Did you know you could check out and download a Kindle book, without having to drive to the library—if you have internet access?  And that such digital library resources are poised to expand dramatically in the future—with instructional videos, interactive learning games, geneaology mapping tools?

The future of the Chestertown Hospital is in doubt, at least as a traditional in-patient facility. But what if it became, in addition, a telemedicine center for consults with remote specialists, a dispatching center for emergency transport via ambulance or helicopter in critical cases, even a hub of home-care nurses that visited new mothers and aging seniors on a regular basis, bringing medicines, mobile diagnostic tools, and a tablet for in-home video-consults with a doctor? What would it mean for people living alone to have a virtual assistant (like Amazon’s Alexa) ask each morning about pain levels, remind about medicines, or monitor for slips and falls and call for help emergency help if needed? The next few years will see a host of smart in-home devices and sophisticated on-line diagnostic tools designed to keep people healthier and out of hospitals or to detect strokes before they happen—making reliable internet access sometimes a matter of life and death.

And what do individualized digital learning platforms—like the ones Kent County Public Schools have already implemented—mean for student achievement, especially with universal student 24/7 access to the platform and other on-line tools from home?  Even without universal access, the results are already showing up with higher rankings in state-wide comparisons. But the next wave of instructional materials will make heavy use of virtual reality tools—to allow students to explore how a heart works, for example, or to understand how galaxies form—that are even more dependent on fast internet access. So it’s clear that broadband access is critical for Kent County’s next generation to succeed, as students prepare for lives in a world where many traditional jobs may not exist.

These and other implications of the Gigabit County will be the subject of other articles in this series. The Spy invites comment under its new Future Focus department, and hopes to further stimulate discussion and engagement via a series of guest lectures or moderated expert panels.

 A Guide to Internet Service Providers in Kent County

Prices and speeds quoted for residential service, based on information from the providers, but you are advised to call them to get a quote for your location and needs or for business service. Some providers offer discounted introductory prices. Install prices can vary.

Fiber

ThinkBig Networks. Unlimited Gigabit service (1000 Megabits) for $99/month over the FTS fiber.  Install $400 (can be spread over 3 years), which includes a sophisticated router. For now, this is the only gigabit provider in the county, offering speeds more than 8 times what any other provider can offer and at a price comparable or even lower than other providers’ high speed service. Mark Wagner, CEO of ThinkBig and an experienced IT professional, suggests that you think of the install fee as an investment that pays off over several years, since you will never need another internet connection. He says the company will be profitable with as few as several thousand customers across the Eastern Shore, that demand is brisk, and that he expects to have 1000 customers hooked up in Kent County alone by the end of the summer. He says the company is committed to the goal of universal access, and will be willing to work with the county to make that happen. www.ThinkBignets.com

Atlantic Broadband. Currently offering 15/60/120 megabits download speeds in Kent County at prices ranging up to $80.99/month for internet services only. The company also offers internet, cable TV, and phone packages. David Isenberg, a Boston-based executive, says the company intends to be competitive, is upgrading their system on the Eastern Shore, and plans eventually to offer gigabit service in Maryland. They recently provided fiber to the home in the Kinards Point, Worton, neighborhood and expect to do that in most new buildouts. www.atlanticbb.com

Wireless

Bridgemaxx. Offering 2/3/6/10 megabits download speeds at prices from $34.95 to $84.95, with installation extra. CEO Jim Conner says that they can provide up to 30 megabits, and that they can also provide phone service, and video service via their partner Direct TV. Bridgemaxx has been active on the Eastern Shore for several years and already has numerous customers. www.bridgemaxx.com

Delmarva WiFi. Offering 5/10/25 megabits download and upload speeds at prices from $64.96 to $109.95/month. Install and customer equipment extra. CEO John Woodfield says that with newer equipment, they can provide speeds up to 100 megabits to line of sight customers. Delmarva has also been active across the Eastern Shore for several years. www.delmarvawifi.com

Cambio WiFi. Offering 8/12/16/25 megabits download speeds at prices ranging from $54.95 to $124.95. Install extra. CEO Steve Kirby says that they can provide speeds as high as 100 megabits. Cambio provides service over its own licensed frequencies to minimize interference. Cambio is a relatively new entrant on the Eastern Shore, launching in Kent County (although they have been serving Tolchester Marina and other customers since 2015), but intends to expand across the Eastern Shore and beyond.  www.cambiowifi.com

Tidewater WiFi. Offering 25 megabits of download for $75/month, with higher levels of usage at prices up to $120/month, activation fee extra. Offers service primarily in the Galena area. www.tidewaterwifi.com

A Technology Primer

Like most things digital, the technologies that bring internet to your home keep getting faster, better, and cheaper. Take optical fibers, for example, which can now carry an internet signal (in the form of light) 20 miles or more before it needs to be boosted or amplified. Installing such fibers (which come wrapped in heavy insulation) is easier now too, with trenching tools or with guided horizontal drills that punch a cable-sized hole 400 feet long (and 4 to 8 feet underground), then pull a bundle of optical fibers through the hole as the drill withdraws. The cable crews installing fiber in Kent County (see pics/video) say they can typically lay 800 feet of fiber per day, sometimes more.

When a fiber reaches your home, it is connected to a device called an optical network terminal, which converts it into a WiFi signal and also provide Ethernet jacks, like a conventional router. Routers, too, have improved; many today offer WiFi networks on two different frequencies to give homeowners more ways to connect their devices. And there are more devices to connect—not only mobile phones, tablets, and computers, but also TVs, electronic gaming terminals, music systems, thermostats, security systems, and other “smart home” tools. Two frequencies allow people to segregate devices that carry sensitive information—like computers used for on-line banking or professional activities—from those that are wide open (your smart thermostat, your children’s Facebook or Snapchat links).

When a wireless internet signal reaches your home, it also is typically captured by an external antenna that connects to a WiFi router in your home. But wireless technology has also improved; some providers (including some in Kent County) now use what is called WiFi over LTE, which is a form of wireless transmission that is used by mobile telecom companies on their licensed frequencies, but can now also be used in the unlicensed WiFi frequencies. WiFi over LTE is said to resist interference better and offer improved penetration through trees, which means better access and higher effective speeds.

Al Hammond holds degrees in Engineering and Applied Mathematics from Stanford University and Harvard University. He is a serial entrepreneur (having founded 5 enterprises) and a prolific writer (having authored or contributed to 16 books and nearly 200 articles). In the 1970s, he helped to edit the international journal Science, and went on to found and edit several national publications, including Science 80/86 (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and Issues in Science and Technology (published by the National Academy of Science). He lives in Chestertown, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Making it Work on the Shore: Ace Moritz and Eastern Shore Brewing

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The craft beer business was in its infancy when Adrian (Ace) Moritz started to work in the industry during the early 1990s in one of Vermont’s earliest local breweries, the Long Trail Brewing Company. It was hard to tell then that the local brew industry would become the booming business it has become, but it started a lifetime passion for Ace.

After leaving Long Trail, and deciding to leave a lucrative private sector career in New York, Ace and his wife decided to risk everything when they started Eastern Shore Brewing Company in St. Michaels in 2009 to follow his passion.

And over the course of the last nine years, Ace has learned a great deal about moving from the love of a home brewery to the complications and challenges that come with a full retail and wholesale operation. Those lessons have continuously change the business model as he continues to find the sweet spot between maintaining a sustainable business and remain competitive as craft beer takes over some of the smallest towns on the Eastern Shore.

This video is approximately six minutes in length. For more information about Eastern Shore Brewing please go here.

GCI Announces “Open for Business” Recipients

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The Greater Chestertown Initiative’s  “Open for Business in Chestertown” program announced three recipients of “kickstarter” funding for new or expanding businesses in downtown Chestertown.

Bill and Andrew Short of Eastern Interiors; Chris Tilghman of SheShe on High; Carla Massoni and Lani Seikaly of the Greater Chestertown Initiative; and Dale Hornstein and Sharon Puckett of Tiny Tots Boutique

Chosen to receive funding were Chris Tilghman for SheShe on High; Sharon Puckett & Dale Hornstein for Tiny Tots Boutique; and Bill & Andrew Short for Eastern Interiors.

the Open for Business program invites entrepreneurs to submit requests for funding. Awards are made in the form of matching funds and virtually interest free loans. The program is supported by the non-profit SFW Foundation, created to fund these business incentives.

The GCI is an informal and independent coalition of leaders of organizations both non-profit and for-profit, community associations and government agencies, Washington College and other interested groups and individuals. Among its projects have been supporting the town’s application for an Arts & Entertainment District designation from the Maryland State Arts Council,creating additional tourist events and additional Saturday and Sunday activities for First Friday weekends.