Photo: Matt Dunne, the founder and CEO of the national nonprofit Center on Rural Innovation. Photo courtesy the Center on Rural Innovation.
VermontBiz Talking to Matt Dunne, the founder and CEO of the national nonprofit Center on Rural Innovation, or CORI, which is based in an old general store in Hartland, is like hearing the history of economic development in Vermont — the one that is not based in Chittenden County.
Dunne, 52, and CORI are leaders in a growing national movement to develop rural entrepreneurship and, along the way, help end the digital divide. As consultants, they begin by helping a rural town increase its broadband and then go on to support business incubators — all of it designed so that tech development does not have to live and die in cities.
To date, CORI has helped communities raise $18 million to help these towns manifest their visions.
CORI provides support, ideas, motivation and mentoring to many towns in rural America that all have the same idea: to develop tech entrepreneurship so people can experience the joys of living in smaller communities where they can feel connected while earning a good living and having a chance to grow — places like Durango, CO; Cape Girardeau, MO; and Springfield, VT.
“Both Durango and Cape Girardeau had already started on their journey to build a tech economy when they applied to work with us,” Dunne said. “We helped them both with building out their strategy to expand their work and their effort to secure $1.5 million in federal dollars to execute on that strategy. In addition, we invested in a tech startup in each of their communities (Agile Space Industries in Durango and SHO in Cape Girardeau) that have gone on to expand significantly in those communities. They are both active participants in our Rural Innovation Network, sharing best practices to communities that are in the earlier stages of building a tech economy.”
Dunne, who is something of a visionary, has a complicated résumé. He was one of the youngest people ever elected to the Vermont Legislature, where he first served in the House. Representing Hartland and West Windsor, he became the youngest House majority whip in the country. He was an early leader in brownfields remediation legislation.
He also claims some deep technological chops. Thanks to his mother, he took coding classes when he was young. And while he was in the Legislature, he says, he was the only one who had a laptop, which caused a bit of a commotion in 1992. “They tried running an extension cord across the floor of the House,” he said. “The fire marshal was not happy with me. This was at a time when you could still hear the clacking of typewriters throughout the secretarial pool, and there was one sweet green Wang computer for the entire Legislature that nobody used.”
Dunne left the House to become director of President Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps VISTA national service program before returning to the Vermont Senate in 2002 to represent Windsor.
Hinda Miller, co-inventor of the Jogbra and a Chittenden County senator, served with Dunne in the Senate.
“Matt and I co-chaired the CREDability Initiative summer study group,” Miller said. “We had fun doing it along with other Vermont entrepreneurs like Bob Miller, Will Raap, Bill Schubart and Wayne Granquist. CRED stood for Creative, Restorative Economic Development. We studied the potential of brownfields, how to revitalize town centers where young creatives could live and work, the importance of broadband, technology, workforce housing, vital downtowns, farmer’s markets — it was an integrated look at the economic future of Vermont. In my opinion, the legislation that came from the ideas generated by this group started to lay the foundations of Vermont’s vibrant creative technology entrepreneurial sector today.”
Miller calls Dunne “attractive, energetic, very open and loving.”
“He really enjoyed the work that he was doing serving in the Legislature,” she said. “He has a good sense of humor, and I was very impressed by how smart he was. And I would say visionary, in the way he looks at job creation.”
And since being in the Legislature is not a full-time job, Dunne also served as assistant director of the Nelson A Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences at Dartmouth College, where he oversaw programs to prepare young people for careers in public service and nonprofit management.
He then worked for Google as community affairs director before running for lieutenant governor in 2006 and losing to Brian Dubie. He ran in the Democratic primary for governor in 2016, where he lost to Sue Mintner, who in turn was defeated in the general election by Phil Scott.
When he left electoral politics, Dunne found his mission and his passion — developing the ideas that led to CORI.
Dunne believes there’s a critical need to bring rural America into the digital economy and liberate the talents that may be waiting there. Even a small city like Burlington is awash in economic activity, with incubators like Hula and an investment community actively searching for new entrepreneurs to support.
But what about, for example, a small community such as Springfield? The Windsor County town located on the traditional land of the Pennacook and Abenaki people was once a powerhouse in the precision manufacturing age. It was so important to America’s economic life that, during World War II, the US government ranked Springfield seventh on the list of most important enemy bombing targets in the country.
But the manufacturing departed and left behind a crumbling infrastructure of empty red-brick buildings, brownfields and rampant unemployment.
Today Springfield — as well as many other towns across the country — is trying to spring back to economic life. Dunne’s Center on Rural Innovation is one of the prime motivators. The center is also at the forefront of closing the rural opportunity gap in about 30 rural communities from Oklahoma to Maine. Five of these communities, including Springfield, are based in Vermont.
“Matt’s home is in rural Vermont, and he always had a good feel for a place that has often been neglected,” Miller said. “I think his work at CORI now reflects the lifetime of understanding of rural communities and the possibilities of technology, and also in attracting young people to live in smaller towns where they can participate and feel a sense of ownership and community.”
CORI’s mission is to “advance economic prosperity in rural America through the creation of inclusive digital economy ecosystems that support scalable entrepreneurship and tech job creation.” In simple terms, CORI seeks to nudge rural towns into digital hubs by offering them mentoring, advice, support and consultative services.
In Springfield, for example, CORI gave birth to the Black River Innovation Campus, or BRIC, at the former Park Street School. The facility is owned by the Springfield Regional Development Corporation, where Dunne sits on the board.
Photo: Black River Innovation Campus exterior. Photo courtesy the Center on Rural Innovation.
Photo: Black River Innovation Campus interior. Photo: Randy T. Holhut
By harnessing the power of some of the fastest internet in the country — 10 gigabytes per second —BRIC has created a podcasting studio, co-working space, an after-school coding center for middle school students and a few entrepreneurial startups. Plans call for converting one wing of the school into housing for entrepreneurs.
Marguerite Dibble, the executive in charge of the BRIC, said Dunne’s connections make him invaluable.
“He’s an incredible networker,” Dibble said. “The work he’s done to build relationships across so many regions has positioned the program for success — and continues to do so. Working with Matt is a very quintessential Vermont experience. Every time we catch up, there are updates on all the inspiring new possibilities for the program, and then a sidebar (conversation) on what sheep broke through a fence or created chaos around the farm this time.”
Bob Flint, the executive director of the Springfield Regional Development Corporation, has known Dunne since his time in the Vermont House.
“After Matt lost in the gubernatorial primary, we had lunch,” Flint said, “and we were commiserating and having another one of our conversations about how we can help Springfield turn around economically. That led to the creation of the Southern Windsor County Incubator, which is now known as the Black River Innovation Campus. I think BRIC was the initial guinea pig for what has become Matt’s national effort to help towns like Springfield that are near economic centers but not necessarily part of them.”
Dunne, Flint said, has spent his life seeking opportunities to serve his community.
“The thing about Matt that has been consistent is that he tries to find a way to make a difference,” Flint said. “He’s very passionate about things. And now, through CORI, he’s able to have a national imprint.
“He’s trying to make a difference in towns that are, frankly, not only practically disadvantaged but politically disadvantaged. I think he’s found a way to use his skill set and connections with both state and national stakeholders in and out of government to piece this together and do something exciting.”
Dunne has a way of attracting young, bright and enthusiastic people into his orbit. Alex Kelley, CORI’s head of broadband consulting, started working with Dunne on his political campaigns when he was just 25. He was the third employee to join CORI; he’s now 32.
Kelley says his job is “helping communities plan and build broadband networks that can allow technology, jobs and technology-based entrepreneurship that helps a community built on a good broadband foundation.”
This isn’t about building out fiber optic networks, it’s helping communities to do the hard work that leads to laying cable.
Kelley believes optimism is Dunne’s key feature as a leader.
“He is inspiring,” Kelley said. “He’s so good at this type of work. He’s genuinely optimistic about what’s possible in rural areas … and, frankly, it’s what rural areas need to hear — that things can be better, that you can create a more prosperous rural economy with a little hard work and a little luck and a little elbow grease.”
CORI has 40 employees, half of whom work out of the Hartland office. The rest are, by design, scattered across the country.
The nonprofit has several moving parts, including one tax-free umbrella organization called CORI, and a separate one that allows for taxable income, called Rural Innovation Strategies Inc. There’s also a smallish seed fund, the CORI Innovation Fund.
“After we helped the Black River Innovation Campus in Springfield secure $2 million in funding, including $750,000 from the US Economic Development Administration Build to Scale program, we received directly a cooperative agreement (i.e., contract) to take what we learned in that process to support other rural communities across the country,” Dunne said. “Over the course of two years, we were able to support 19 communities to begin building their tech economies and secure funding to execute on their strategy. We also received federal funding to help us stand up our first investment vehicle, the CORI Innovation Fund, through a program called the Capital Challenge.”
CORI also received a research grant to help inform regions of new types of economic development strategies for rural communities. (See ruralinnovation.us/resources/webinar/webinar-rural-economic-development-strategies.)
“We are also a part of a consortium that applied for funding for a rural tech economy fellows’ program that can place individuals trained in these new strategies in our network communities to further advance the work,” Dunne said. “We are waiting to hear the final word on this proposal in the next few weeks.”
And CORI’s funding is picking up steam.
“We finished last year with a budget just shy of $5 million,” Dunne said. “The seed fund added an additional $4 million. To date, we’ve helped communities raise $18 million to execute on the vision. And there’s another round that’s coming up soon to help potentially support them to continue that work. But we can’t speculate on how well that will go.”
Learning to Make an Impact
Dunne was born in New Haven, CT, but grew up on his parents’ farm in Hartland, where he still lives with his wife, the mystery writer Sarah Stewart Taylor (“She’s the talented one in the family”), and their three children. They raise sheep and chickens and blueberries.
Dunne is a true Vermonter, with deep roots in the state.
“My grandmother grew up in Newport,” he said. “And her father was the first water and sewer commissioner for the city of Newport.”
Dunne’s parents, however, were not exactly farmers.
“My mom, Faith Weinstein Dunne, was a professor at Dartmouth, and my dad, John Bailey Dunne, was an attorney,” Dunne said. “He was involved with setting up the Vermont Land Trust and those kinds of things. But Dad loved tinkering and farming more than he liked practicing law. So, we have a little 100-acre setup.”
Dunne said his parents taught him and his younger brother, who now lives in Texas, the importance of making an impact in his community.
“My father was a civil rights activist,” Dunne said. “He was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He got involved with the student organizing efforts there in the very early ‘60s and ended up being one of the student leaders in the region. When he led a hunger strike at a post office, he was convicted of trespassing on federal property and sentenced to two years in prison. He served for a while, but his sentence eventually was commuted on the condition that he leave the state forever. Interesting letter to get from a governor. But he did.”
He then finished college, met his future wife and went to work for Mayor John Lindsay in New York City.
“There, he founded the VT/NY Project, which was the precursor to the Fresh Air Fund,” Dunne said. “There were some tough incidents that came out of that, and they caused (Vermont) Governor Phil Hoff to shut it down after a couple of years. It was a wake-up call that we are not — as much as we pride ourselves — progressive. There’s always more good work to be done.”
By the time his father was in law school, the family had already bought land in Hartland.
“We were going back and forth at the time, and my father was eventually able to come up full time when he finished his law degree,” Dunne said.
Dunne said his father wasn’t “particularly good” with money, which forced Dunne to learn the importance of going to work early and working hard.
“He had an auction habit that was not necessarily very healthy,” Dunne explained. “He would come home on any given weeknight pulling some piece of equipment behind the tractor, or with some random livestock. So, I started raising pigs when I was in third grade. My parents said, ‘All right, we’ll loan you the money to get started, but you’ve got to keep a ledger and track all the expenses and everything else.’ I said, ‘You’ve got it.’ And that’s what I did for third grade through ninth grade. I showed the pigs at the Tunbridge Fair and did pretty well. I realized later that I wasn’t paying rent for space or that kind of thing. But you know, it let me get the bicycle I wanted and the electric guitar I wanted, and it certainly instilled in me a sense of how that kind of math works. It was a nice lesson to have.”
Dunne’s father died when Dunne was 13.
“He was much, much too young,” Dunne said. “Sadly, he died of melanoma, and there is some sense that he got it because he was so badly sunburned, over and over again, while he was working on those chain gangs in North Carolina. So those are tough moments. But he was an extraordinary human. He was fully engaged and used to bring me along with him to various meetings. I think I learned the power of bringing together people around a vision. You can end up doing things that you don’t think are possible, and certainly are not possible by oneself. I also learned a sense of urgency. When someone passes away that young, you feel there’s not necessarily a whole lot of time. And he gave me a deep passion for pursuing equity.”
Dunne’s equally impressive mother was the chair of the education department at Dartmouth and the first woman at the college to obtain tenure.
“She set a high bar, which you get up every day trying to aspire to,” Dunne said.
Dunne’s mother died in 2001 at the age of 60.
“So, earlier than expected, coming home to the farm,” Dunne said.
The Young Legislator
Dunne left Vermont for Brown University to earn a degree in public policy, which he received in 1992.
“I spent all my time in the theater,” he said. “I was always interested in technology, but not as a coder. My roommates at Brown were engineers, but I was a social science and humanities person.”
The same year Dunne graduated from Brown he ran for the Vermont Legislature and won.
“It was a kind of a surprise election, since I was definitely young,” Dunne said. “But it was in 1992. And people were in an uppity mood, and I think I benefited from that.”
Most Vermont kids have a desire to leave Vermont and explore the outside world while they’re young, but Dunne wanted to stick around.
“The town of Hartland was pretty amazing to me and my family,” he said. “When my father died, they wrapped their arms around us. It was a community going through a tough time of its own. When I was growing up in Hartland, it was machine tool and dairy town. Until it wasn’t. I felt like there was an opportunity to get back to being a part of it, to make a difference.”
At Brown, Dunne had been taking “amazing” courses on public policy and the change that could happen. He was inspired by people like Robert Reich and Bill Clinton and others who were thinking about different ways to make a difference in the public sphere.
“My parents, even though neither of them held an elective office — other than my mom doing a tour on the school board — really believed in elective office as a pathway to make a difference,” Dunne said. “And there was an open seat.”
The assumption was that the Republican candidate would walk right into the seat, so no Democrat was stepping up.
“I went and chatted with Peter Welch, who I had grown up with,” Dunne said. “His son was my age at Hanover. It was during his hiatus from politics, and I met with him in his law office. He said, ‘Matt, if you work hard, you will win. This is terrific.’ And he wrote me a check for $25 made out to “Matt Dunne for State Representative.” For someone who was on the fence and could find 100 different excuses why I shouldn’t run, it was powerful.”
Later on, Dunne ended up sitting next to Welch in the Vermont Senate. That was before Welch went to Congress; at this writing, he is now running for Senator Pat Leahy’s US Senate seat.
“So, I jumped into it and, lo and behold, I got elected to the House,” Dunne said. “I was focused on wanting to create jobs and to figure out how we could find a way to not sacrifice our farms and forestland but still create a future in the region that I loved. And that became the focus of my work while I was in the House and in the Senate.”
Since being a member of the Legislature isn’t a high-paying job, Dunne also began working as an administrative assistant at Dartmouth and piecing together other income streams.
“I launched the glory days of the railroad festival in White River Junction,” he recalled. “I taught acting. I ran the theater program in the fall at Hanover High School, where I’d gone to high school. I directed plays there. I also ran the Briggs Opera House while I was doing the other pieces, because I was seen as someone who had more energy than sense. I was able to convince Northern Stage to come and start doing things in White River. That’s how I piecemealed it while staying at my mom’s house at the farm.”
He eventually got a job at Logic Associates in Wilder.
“It was some Dartmouth guys who saw that there was a challenge with data in the commercial printing industry,” Dunne said. “So, they put together this company and I was hired as director of marketing. They were going through a growth stage. And I was able to grow the company to a little over 100 employees. That’s what I did while I was in the Legislature.”
Dunne worked on enacting the state’s first broadband grants and creating funding for brownfields revitalization. That made it possible for many of the state’s empty office and manufacturing plants, most of them sitting on contaminated land, to be redeveloped.
“It created a framework to allow someone to remediate properties,” Dunne said. “Before that time, there was no way to get protection. If you bought a property that was contaminated, you were liable for it. And we had all of these industrial sites across the state that were laying empty. You went into Windsor and asked, ‘Why are all these buildings empty?’ And they said, ‘Oh, they’re contaminated. And no one will touch them for any money. You couldn’t pay someone to do it.’ Borrowing from what a couple of other states had done, we put together the first program to limit liability for prospective purchasers. They could come in and at least have a shot of cleaning up and redeveloping. Then later, we started the first grants program to bring money in. The regional planning commissions knew they could get money from the Environmental Protection Agency to help support those kinds of things as long as we were able to get a pathway so that someone could buy a property to use it. We called it the Land Recycling Act.”
Dunne doesn’t take full credit.
“I sponsored and drafted the legislation, but I would always have Vermont Law School and Dartmouth and University of Vermont interns working with me,” he said. “Because you needed all the talent you could get to work on those things. That piece of legislation was actually written by a second-year law student who went and researched it. It wasn’t my committee of jurisdiction, but we put the pieces together and introduced it and it got attention. It was an exciting time to be doing policy in Vermont.”
Dunne also worked on downtown redevelopment.
“Again, it was about how we create economic development where we know we want it to happen,” Dunne said. “We were very good in Vermont at telling people where they couldn’t develop. We weren’t very good at saying where we want job creation to happen. The goal was to figure out where are the blockers and the barriers to being able to redevelop the places that we all could agree was where we wanted to have more jobs and more economic activity. Then we had to try to align incentives to support them.”
Mr. Dunne Goes to Washington
In 1999, Dunne left the Legislature to become head of AmeriCorps VISTA under President Clinton. He got the job through another Vermont connection, his childhood friend Miro Weinberger, now the long-time mayor of Burlington.
“Miro and I grew up together,” Dunne said. “We both had an interest in policy and economic redevelopment. He had a listserv from when he worked for Harris Wofford, who was a US senator from Pennsylvania, in his reelection campaign. Harris lost to Rick Santorum but stayed in touch with his core crew. And then Harris got appointed the head of the Corporation for National and Community Service. When they were looking for a new director of VISTA, Miro was on Harrison’s group’s listserv, and I was on Miro’s. He offered me the job description. I remember saying to my then girlfriend and now wife, Sarah, ‘Who do we know that would be good at this and excited about it?’ She said, ‘This is what you talk about all the time. You should jump into this.’”
Dunne wrote a long letter to Wofford explaining his career “and why I would be passionate about helping bring a 6,000-person organization into the next century.” It took several months of interviews, and he thought it was a long shot.
“But I had an alignment of interests, including having some background in technology as well as experience working with state government, and they wanted to do more partnerships,” Dunne said.
He got the job and moved to Washington.
“It was an extraordinary opportunity to come at the end of the Clinton administration,” he said. “I was given a lot of latitude to do a reorganization and a rethinking of how the program operated, how we did recruiting; we brought that on line.”
Many of his colleagues were resigning before the transition to the new administration of George W. Bush, but Wofford encouraged Dunne to remain.
“He said, ‘Don’t you dare! We have a chance of national service being a nonpartisan issue. And if they’re willing to keep you there to continue the momentum you’ve built, you should do it,’” Dunne said. “So, I stayed on. Then my mom passed away, suddenly. That was two weeks before 9/11. Coming back and evacuating my team out of the building because the Pentagon was hit. Then the call to service, which was an incredible moment in our country — one that I think has gone overlooked.”
In the aftermath of 9/11, there was flood of patriotism and a bipartisan call for people to serve the nation — not just in the military, but in national service.
“We saw entire floors of consulting firms deciding they were going to take a year and give back,” Dunne said. “The infrastructure that we had put in place as we were redesigning the program was in a great position absorb that kind of influx. It was exciting during a time that was also really traumatic for the country. But I was able to help lead the organization through that transition.”
Eventually, Dunne decided to come home and jump into a Senate race.
“The day after stepping down from AmeriCorps VISTA, which was the week after Sarah and I got married, I was elected to the state Senate and served two terms working with Hinda Miller. The work at AmeriCorps VISTA is relevant because we got to do a lot of work in rural communities. We launched one of the first ‘bridging the digital divide initiatives,’ called Power Up, which was in partnership with Steve Case from AOL. We also partnered with folks like the CEO of Land O’Lakes, Jack Garrity, who wanted to bring the generation of folks who served in VISTA back into the fold. He wanted to be involved in the program to support younger folks going into national service.”
For income, Dunne again worked at Dartmouth, this time as assistant director of the Nelson A Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences.
“I was helping to be able to support a generation of change agents from that institution, which was very exciting and fun,” he said.
But Dunne thought the way to make change and end the digital divide — note that this was in 2002, and we haven’t done it yet — was electoral office, which is why he ran for lieutenant governor in 2006; he narrowly lost.
Asked what it feels like to lose an election, Dunne responded, “It becomes very quiet.”
Candidates, he said, are out in the streets, running hard, getting to every corner of the state and connecting with as many people as they can. Emails are flying, campaign literature is being printed and mailed, and they have to debate their opponents — it’s a busy life.
“And the day after the election, if you lose, it goes completely silent,” Dunne said. “And it’s hard. Because if you’re in it to make a difference, and to empower people, and to engage lots of folks in these conversations, you realize that if you’re not elected there is a limit to what you can do. And that’s why I made decisions not to take jobs that were useful for the political trajectory, but that would allow me to make it to explore an interesting thing or to make a difference.”
What kind of jobs are useful for a political trajectory?
“Working in a Vermont as a deputy something or other,” he said. “There have been people who have aspired for higher office that have clearly continued to do jobs they weren’t particularly excited about, for the focus of being able to run statewide again, and win. And life’s too short. I definitely did jobs that I felt were allowing me to make a difference.”
Google Comes Calling
After the election, Dunne did some consulting.
“Things to make the mortgage payments,” he said. “Then I was contacted by Google. They said, ‘Apparently, we need someone with your weird background to help us talk to people better.’”
Again, it was Weinberger who turned him on to the job.
“A friend of his had gone on to be the head of policy at Google,” Dunne said. “They had done a very poor job of landing their data centers in rural communities. Data centers at Google are huge, $300 million facilities. They tried to build a million-square-foot building in a community of less than 10,000 people in secret. It ended up the way that you would expect it to, which was on the front page of The New York Times business section. The headline, I think, said ‘Hiding in Plain Sight.’”
Google offered Dunne a job running community affairs and asked when he could move to Mountain View, California. He said, “Never!”
“They were baffled,” Dunne said. “We kept going back and forth. And then they stopped returning emails. I thought, ‘Oh, it looks like I may have missed that shot.’ Then I got a call a couple months later, because they were being sued in North Carolina, and they said, ‘I don’t care where you live. You be in North Carolina next week. Let’s go.’ They let me do the job from a small office in White River Junction, which is still there to this day.”
Doing community relations at Google was an interesting job.
“It was about all of the relationships where we had a geographic location,” Dunne said. “It started with data centers, which were the highest impact. And because it’s different from just building an office suite within an existing building, you were actually making a huge impact on a smaller, usually rural community that had come out of an industrial downturn.”
Why would Google be interested in rural communities?
“Because they need space, a lot of space,” Dunne said. “And these buildings are huge and expensive. You needed rail connectivity in order to get broadband, because that’s where you lay most of the major fiber optic trunks — along long rail right of ways. And you need people. We did an incredible recruiting program. But it’s for only 70 to 100 people, even for a massive facility, because for the most part it’s just racks and racks and racks of servers.”
Dunne recruited experts in hardware and cooling systems.
“One of the first things I did was launch a local recruiting campaign as we were opening our data center in Lenoir, NC,” Dunne said. “The HR people thought I was out of my mind. They said, ‘We’re Google. We get all the applicants we could ever want.’ And I said, ‘Well, this is part of your responsibility to a region, to at least give people a turn to play.’”
Google was hiring for competency.
“It’s not about where you went to college or university,” Dunne said. “They run you through some tests. Can you get in a room with three other applicants, with most of the parts of a server, and make a working server without anyone getting shocked? What was surely amazing was that they found unbelievable talent.”
The people of Western North Carolina were not traditional employees, Dunne said.
“Some of them had two associate degrees, or one had no degree but had been doing infrastructure for the Lowe’s facility in town,” Dunne said. “They did incredibly well. Once they got hired, it created other kinds of interesting dynamics, because in many of these communities there was an expected hierarchy. If you were a furniture worker for three generations, that’s what you should be doing. The head of community affairs was super excited that we were finding talent right there in rural North Carolina.”
Seeking the Corner Office
Dunne ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2010; he was one of five candidates.
“I had not learned my lesson from the last time,” he said. “It was the economic divide that I had started seeing across the state and across the country. It had become palpable, where one city was doing great and the rest of the state was not. It was not unique to Vermont; this was true across the nation. It was a very disorienting thing to be working for a company like Google that was part of that juggernaut while being in a rural place and spending a lot of time in rural locations. The whole thrust of my campaign was about making Vermont a place where there was a common economy for all Vermonters, in all Vermont. I ran hard on that, and it didn’t work out.”
Today, Dunne is fairly sure that his political days are behind him.
“It’s a bad idea to never say never, but it’s not in my mind for the near future,” he said. “As opportunities have opened up statewide, I have not felt any inclination. So, it might be out of my system.”
Dunne’s experience showed that there’s “an extraordinary amount of talent out there that would much rather stay in their home community then be told they’ve got to move to Raleigh or Oklahoma City or San Francisco,” he said. But it was the breadth and depth of the digital divide that started him thinking of ways to cut it back.
“It was a massive economic divide, being reflected in the loss of newspapers and television stations across the country,” Dunne said. “It was being reflected in the epidemic of deaths of despair, whether it was suicide or opioid overdoses. And it was being played out in the 2016 election, where you saw a lot of people who had had enough. They were not necessarily right or left. I think a lot of Bernie’s traction was about people saying, ‘The system is broken.’ We’re not able to see a future for ourselves or, more importantly, for our children and grandchildren and the place that we care about.”
Working with people at the MIT Media Lab, Dunne came to understand that this was a relatively new phenomenon.
“Since the 2008 Great Recession, you saw this massive divide between urban and rural places,” he said. “And if you dig into it, it comes back to automation. Having winners and losers. The winners of automation were largely cities that were becoming the home to tech companies and robotics companies. The losers were largely in a world where the traditional industries were being automated to the point where they could be consolidated or moved overseas, because you didn’t need to be proximate to go and visit your plant out in a more rural place.”
It became clear that without a technology piece, an economy was bound to fail.
“I put together a proposal and shared it with Reid Hoffman, who was the founder of LinkedIn, and before that part of the PayPal group,” Dunne said. “I’d gotten to know him over the decade before, because he had a Vermont connection — he went to high school at The Putney School. And he was willing to give us a generous seed grant to get going.”
At the same time, Dunne had that lunch with Bob Flint of the Springfield Regional Development Corporation. Flint suggested Springfield as the place to start.
“While I was pitching Reid on this larger notion of creating an organization to help create technology jobs in rural places nationwide, Bob said, ‘There’s no better place to start than right here in Springfield,’” Dunne said. “Springfield was interested because it had been the highest per-capita income community in the state of Vermont for 40 years, based on machine work — more wealth than Burlington or Norwich or any of those places. When it declined, it declined hard.”
Although there was no doubting that Springfield was on hard times, Vermont Telephone had grabbed some federal money and built a high-speed internet network that reached every home and building in town. Tiny rundown Springfield ended up with one of the fastest internet connections in the county.
“I was helping Google Fiber try to do that in places like Kansas City,” Dunne said. “Nobody knew about it. We felt that if you could make a pitch that a place had lots of available space, access to the interstate, wasn’t too far from Dartmouth College where the graduate programs were churning out incredible amounts of talent — and you had the fastest internet connection — you could actually start to build a nascent tech economy. We started doing fundraising to get off the ground a tech accelerator that would be able to support new entrepreneurs, to create scalable tech companies, to do some tech talent development programs and to create a co-work innovation space.”
Dunne secured a federal grant from the US Economic Development Administration that was designed to support tech entrepreneurship, infrastructure, programs and spaces.
“When we received the $750,000 grant, which is not a small thing, we were the only completely rural place in the country to get it,” Dunne said. “The EDA leadership came to us after that and said, ‘OK, the fact that you were the only one is a bit of an issue, because we know that rural America needs more technology jobs in startups for local companies,’” Dunne said. “‘So would you be interested in a contract to start working with other communities like Springfield across the country, to help them to figure out what their assets were, put together a strategy and then put together a strong proposal to be able to apply for this kind of funding?’ So, we set a course.”
Dunne knew that one struggling tech hub might not make it, but a collective of rural economies might succeed.
“We sent out a call for proposals from rural communities that wanted to build technology economies,” Dunne said. “The EDA thought we’d have to knock on people’s door, drag them out. They didn’t think anyone knew that this could be a future of their economy. But we got 120 proposals for six slots. We were like, ‘I think this is a thing.’”
CORI started building programs to work with communities as a cohort, to share what they were doing.
“The one stipulation from the EDA was that we focus outside of Vermont and be in a number of different locations, which was fair,” Dunne said. “We were working with communities like Traverse City, MI; Pine Bluff, AR; Wilson, NC; and Cape Girardeau, MO, with Springfield being the test kitchen.”
All these communities now have access to high-speed internet.
“Wilson, for example, built the first municipal gigabit-speed internet network in the United States,” Dunne said. “Cape Girardeau had built gigabit-speed internet, leveraging their local electric cooperative. This is why the whole narrative that you can’t do this in rural America is just false. We now have 33 communities across 24 states and four time zones that are a part of the Rural Innovation Network, all working together in a really wonderfully collaborative way — which doesn’t always happen in regional economic development. To me, it raises all the boats.”
The Future Is Local
CORI’s networks are growing.
Currently, 13% of America’s workforce lives in rural America, but only 5% of the nation’s tech employment is in rural areas, according to CORI. The center has set a goal of increasing rural America’s share of digital economy jobs to 13% by 2030, distributed to match the gender and race demographics of each region.
CORI itself doesn’t provide the cable networks that enable these communities. Instead, it acts as a consultant.
“We’re capacity builders,” Dunne said. “Rather than thinking we could own and operate these kinds of things all across the country, we help communities that say, ‘We get it. We want to build a tech economy.’ We help them develop a strategy, understand the assets they have, figure out who needs to be a partner in building that, and then helping them secure the funds so that it’s not just a strategy that sits on the shelf. They can actually take steps to implement that vision.”
Photo: Matt Dunne, the founder and CEO of the national nonprofit CORI during his interview with Joyce Marcel. Photo: Randy T. Holhut
The key, as always, is high-speed internet. The communities CORI works with have been ingenious in securing what they need.
“The common thread of most of these towns is that they created their own high-speed networks,” Dunne said. “They used the cooperative model, or nonprofit model, or an entrepreneurial model outside the medium of the monopolies, which made it an interesting proxy for communities that were willing to think outside the box. They went against the national narrative, in all different ways.”
Along the way, there was pushback from the big telecom companies.
“For example, Wilson, NC, was so successful that the telecoms went to their Legislature and forced through bans,” Dunne said. “It was nauseating. The incumbent players were very aggressive in ensuring they didn’t have competition. But that is now starting to unravel, which is great. The Biden administration put $42 billion into the infrastructure bill and sent clear signals that they’re only going to provide resources to places that allow for public-private partnerships. To me, that means that we get to actually have fiber in every home in the country. For someone who’s been passionate about this for a while, it’s some exciting news.”
CORI will not enter a community until there is someone local who has already made the decision to start building digital incubators. For example, the center recently hired a regional director for the Southeast to organize in Selma, AL, where kids are learning coding in the Upper Mississippi Delta.
“Selma is absolutely rural,” Dunne said. “Montgomery is not, but Selma is very rural, traditionally very focused on timber. But there’s a local organization that’s been put together by a retired NFL star (Michael Johnson) who was from there and went to Georgia Tech.”
Dunne has committed CORI to diversity.
“We are making sure that if we’re building new tech economies, that we’re inclusive about it,” he said. “I think we all know that the tech industry was not very good about being inclusive. Many of our communities are very diverse, and we feel that we need to be focused on diversity, equity and inclusion as we’re rolling out these new models. It adds to a complexity, since already the national narrative is that, somehow, if you live in rural America, you can’t code, much less look at the ongoing narrative that women and Hispanics and Black Americans can’t be in that industry either. We’re committed to making sure that there is a different voice at the table that is more diverse than has happened at a national level.”
The growth of startups in these communities is the reason that CORI has an investment arm now. It contains $4.1 million, and more will be on the way.
“We started reaching out to companies in the network and found incredible startups,” Dunne said. “We’ve now deployed all $4 million into an amazing portfolio of nine companies across the network. Three of them are in Vermont, and they are growing at a really great rate. Six of them have completed their next rounds of funding.”
The future is definitely local, according to Dunne.
“We think that as we share more and more stories of rural places being successful, they will overcome some of the biases that even rural people have about what they’re capable of doing.”
Joyce Marcel is a journalist in southern Vermont. In 2017, she was named the best business magazine profile writer in the country by the Alliance of Area Business Publishers. She is married to Randy Holhut, the news editor/acting operations manager of The Commons, a weekly newspaper in Brattleboro.